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Heavy snow plus rain could spell more trouble for Buffalo homeowners

By Ray Sanchez and Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 10:41 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
  • NEW: Authorities worry some buildings could collapse when snow sops up rain
  • Storm's death toll is 10
  • NFL game moved to Detroit's Ford Field on Monday
  • Snow drifts have trapped people in their homes

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(CNN) -- The snowfall might be subsiding in the Buffalo area but officials are warning people the deadly weather emergency is not close to being over.

Especially with rain in the weekend forecast.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told reporters Thursday that while the storm may be largely over for snow purposes, authorities are exceptionally worried that buildings will collapse when the heavy snow pack soaks up the rain.

"There's going to be a warm-up on Saturday, there will probably not be a tremendous amount of melt on Saturday," he said. "There will be a rain starting on Saturday that will not initially create a situation where the snow will melt, but it will actually act as a sponge. So the water that is falling will go into the snow pack and will actually act as a sponge until it finally starts releasing it."

The National Weather Service forecasts light rain to begin Saturday and temperatures to warm.

The major concern is flooding, but Poloncarz said the weight on buildings could cause some to collapse.

"There will be even extra weight because of the rain. So this emergency is not over," he warned.

On Thursday afternoon, Erie County officials said there was a "significant threat of a roof collapse" at the 184-bed Garden Gate Health Care Facility in Cheektowaga. Residents reported wall cracks and a sagging ceiling. Several feet of snow piled on the roof.

Poloncarz, who had earlier tweeted that the roof was collapsing, later clarified the statement, saying beams in the building were twisted and walls cracked.

No injuries were reported and patients were evacuated. Residents were taken temporarily to a business park, said Scott Zylka with the Erie County Sheriff's Office, adding that the roof structure was compromised.

The extreme weather has claimed at least 10 lives -- its latest victims two people with mental health issues who died of apparent exposure overnight, Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County health commissioner, said Thursday.

And the storm forced the NFL to announce that Sunday's game between Buffalo and the New York Jets, scheduled to be played at the Bills' Ralph Wilson Stadium, will be hosted at Detroit's Ford Field on Monday night.

Seeking shelter

At the Winchester Volunteer Fire Company station on Harlem Street, as many as 40 people stranded in the snow have sought shelter since Tuesday. More than 6 feet of snow cover the streets. Abandoned cars are barely visible under the drifts.

Fire trucks can't leave the station. Attempts by firefighters to get out in an SUV were futile. One medic hopped on a snowmobile to rush to a call. Other volunteers jumped on ATVs to reach a home where the roof was buckling under the weight of the snow.

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Workers clear snow from the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, November 23 in Orchard Park, New York. Snowed out at the stadium, the Bills are in Detroit to play their "home" NFL football game against the New York Jets on Monday night. Western New York continues to dig out from a lake-effect storm that dumped about a year's worth of snow in three days, trapping residents in their homes and stranding motorists on roadways. Workers clear snow from the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, November 23 in Orchard Park, New York. Snowed out at the stadium, the Bills are in Detroit to play their "home" NFL football game against the New York Jets on Monday night. Western New York continues to dig out from a lake-effect storm that dumped about a year's worth of snow in three days, trapping residents in their homes and stranding motorists on roadways.
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Maria Odom's two cats and a dog were rescued from the house.

"I'm ready for it to end," Odom, 38, said of the extreme weather. "I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen anything like this."

At the fire station, driver Steve Randall's truckload of milk and eggs has served as the main source of provisions. Randall said he was stuck in his truck for nearly five hours before making his way to the firehouse, where people have been sleeping on tables to stay off the cold floor.

"We've been eating like kings for a while but now we're running out of food," he said. Firehouse occupants have been making quiche, served with milk and bread from a store across the street.

From the Tops grocery store nearby, people hauling bags of food headed out into the snow by foot. One man dragged groceries in a sled; another pulled his child through the snow in a laundry basket. Robert Mead embarked on a five-mile trek to bring formula to his 9-month-old baby.

A year's snowfall in 3 days?

In the past 24 hours, since the latest lake-effect storm started on Wednesday night, more than 3 feet of snow has fallen in several areas near Buffalo.

In Wales Center, there was a new snowfall of 37 inches, according to a National Weather Service spotter.

Residents just stared out their windows at the mounds of white stuff, if they could see out at all.

In East Aurora, Lisa Gutekunst's home was capped with more than 4 feet of snow, she said.

"The snow is coming down so hard you can't see out the window," she said earlier Thursday. "We've cleared our driveway so many times that we've run out of places to put the snow."

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown announced a travel ban in south Buffalo for both cars and pedestrians from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., citing the safety of residents as heavy equipment moved around town.

If the forecast holds, more than a year's worth of snow will have fallen in three days. In a typical year, Buffalo's snowfall totals about 7 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

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Ten people have died, including four who suffered cardiac issues while they shoveled snow and one who died in a car accident, Erie County officials reported. A man in his 60s had a heart attack while he tried to move a snow plow or a snow blower, Erie County deputy executive Richard Tobe said.

Burstein told reporters that two residents of Niagara and Erie counties died overnight Thursday of apparent exposure.

"They both had chronic illnesses," she said. "They both had mental health issues, and were found outside either their home or a close friend's home. They had probably been there overnight."

In Alden, a 46-year-old man was found dead inside a car buried in 12 to 15 feet of snow. In Genesee County, Jack Boyce, a 56-year-old county employee, died after collapsing Tuesday morning while operating a snow blower outside the county sheriff's office, according to County Manager Jay Gsell.

Brown and city officials recounted stories of rescuers trudging around snowdrifts as high as houses to get people to hospitals, and police officers delivering special baby formula to a pair of infants.

A sporting chance

Wednesday night's football game between the University of Buffalo and Kent State was postponed because the visitors' equipment truck didn't arrive on time. The game has been tentatively rescheduled for Friday, school officials said in a statement.

The National Football League announced it would move Sunday's game from Ralph Wilson Stadium, which was buried in an estimated 220,000 tons of snow.

The NFL statement said the contest will be played Monday night at 7 ET at Ford Field, which in 2010 played host to a Minnesota Vikings game after the roof of their stadium collapsed due to snow accumulation.

Moving the game back a day will help the Bills, who haven't been able to practice this week.

The team had been offering tickets to the game and $10 an hour to anyone willing to help remove the snow. Now it is offering refunds to fans who purchased tickets through the team.

CNN's Alexandra Field, Leigh Remizowski, Ashley Fantz, Jason Hanna, Ed Payne, Marcus Hooper, Martin Savidge and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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