Storm-weary road crews and residents of western New York struggled on Tuesday to dig out from a deadly weekend blizzard, with snow still falling and forecasts for rapid warming and rains that could cause flooding and turn the frozen landscape to slush.
The region in and around Buffalo, New York, downwind of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario emerged as ground zero for an Arctic deep freeze and massive winter storm that extended over most of the United States last week and through the Christmas holiday as far south as the Mexican border.
The toll of confirmed storm-related deaths in western New York rose to 29 on Tuesday, officials said, as snowfall began to taper off. Emergency crews continued locating and removing vehicles left buried under deep mounds of snow and drifts several feet high.
Some people were found dead frozen in cars, others in snowbanks outdoors, while some died in medical emergencies such as cardiac arrest while shoveling snow, Erie County’s chief executive Mark Poloncarz told reporters.
“We’re recovering from the worst storm I’ve ever seen, certainly in terms of death from mother nature’s wrath,” he said.
Nationwide, at least 60 died in weather-related incidents in recent days, NBC News reported.
In and around Buffalo, up to 52 inches of snow fell over four days and a bit more was expected by Tuesday night, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
The situation was expected to change dramatically. The NWS forecast a rapid thaw later this week, with temperatures climbing well above freezing and well above normal, accompanied by rain that could unleash flooding.
“With 50-degree temperatures and rain later this week, we are working with our NWS Buffalo partners to monitor the forecast,” Poloncarz said in a Tweet. “This is one of the reasons certain streets are targeted for extra clearance to allow for proper drainage of melt water.”
Progress was slow due to the sheer volume and depth of the snow, which Poloncarz said “is not plowable.”
Special high-lift shovel tractors were brought in to scoop up snow into dump trucks, which then cart away the frozen loads to be discarded elsewhere. Poloncarz said it would take two days to open up one lane on every city street.
Giant snow-blowing machines were also deployed to help clear several major highways clogged with towering drifts. A ban on personal road travel was still in effect for Buffalo.
Hundreds of electric company linemen were out restoring power, and Poloncarz said on Twitter that about 4,500 customers remained without electricity on Tuesday, as crews cleared downed trees with chain saws.
For residents essentially trapped in their homes for two days, the easing of the storm finally brought a realization of how much snow fell during white-out conditions that had limited their view.
“We would look out the window and it was blowing so much that we couldn’t really tell if we were getting any accumulation, but when it finally settled we had a lot of work to do,” said Jim Nowak, who was out shoveling on Tuesday.
NWS meteorologist Bob Oravec of the NWS Weather Prediction Center in Maryland predicted two more inches would fall in Western New York Tuesday, but said that was “probably the last.
“It’ll be warming up soon. By Thursday the high will be 46 (8 degrees Celsius). By Saturday it’ll be 54 (12 C),” Oravec said.
Tuesday remained cold, with a high of 28 F (minus 2 C) and a low of 20 F (minus 6 C), Oravec said.
Buffalo, New York state’s second largest city, was hardest hit by the blizzard, which took shape over the Great Lakes on Friday and extended its grip into the Ohio and Upper Mississippi valleys and mountains of Appalachia.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul called it an “epic, once-in-a-lifetime” weather disaster, the worst blizzard to hit the Buffalo area in 45 years.
The county has called in 100 military police from the state National Guard as well as officers from New York City to help manage traffic and enforce road restrictions.
Buffalo residents with plows attached to their Jeeps and pickup trucks helped clear side streets. People walked a mile or more in the lanes cut by snow plows to reach convenience stores and supermarkets that were beginning to reopen.
Poloncarz, speaking at a press briefing Tuesday, urged residents to stay home and the curious to stay away.
“Please stay out of the city of Buffalo,” he said.