Days into the deadly winter storm that bedeviled much of the country, the challenges are far from over for residents and authorities in Buffalo, New York.
The death toll continues to climb as authorities check on homes and cars for anyone who was stranded in the storm. At least 31 people died in New York’s Erie County as the storm buried Buffalo in up to 50.3 inches of snow. At least 25 others across 11 US states have been reported dead in the storm.
“We’re, unfortunately, finding bodies on the street and in snow banks,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday evening.
Local health officials were urgently responding to medical requests, including arranging transportation for people who need dialysis treatments – many of which were disrupted or delayed because of the storm. “Dialysis isn’t an optional or elective treatment. It has to be done regularly – several times a week – or that person dies,” the Erie County health department said.
Buffalo police, meanwhile, arrested at least eight people by Tuesday afternoon in connection with business break-ins during the storm.
And efforts of firefighters and other emergency vehicles working in the area were hampered by the hundreds of vehicles abandoned in the snow across Buffalo after fierce blizzard conditions made for blinding drives over the Christmas weekend, officials said.
A driving ban remained in effect in Buffalo amid a two-day effort to clear at least one lane on every street to accommodate emergency responders, Poloncarz said at a news conference.
“There’s a lot of roads that are completely blocked right now, that have no access whatsoever. And people are trying to drive on these roads or trying to get into these neighborhoods, and they can’t,” Poloncarz said.
“Please, please,” he said. “I’m begging: Stay home. If it’s an emergency situation, call 911.”
Driving ban in effect; flood mitigation
Buffalo could see up to another half an inch of snow into Tuesday night and a daytime high of 30 degrees falling to 27 at night in New York’s second-most populous city.
But temperatures are expected to rise throughout the rest of the week, and local officials are worried that may cause flooding.
The flood risk is small, according to the National Weather Service, which said that snow melting alone “rarely causes flooding.” And even though there’s light rain forecast for the region, “it should take around an inch of rain from this system before flooding becomes a concern,” the weather service said.
Still, the leader of Erie County’s Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Services said crews were working to prevent any possibility of floods.
As temperatures warm, authorities wanted “to make sure that we are cleared from curb to curb and as in many areas as possible so that when it melts it can run off and it can find its appropriate drainage,” commissioner Daniel Neaverth said.
Other steps toward recovery include:
• President Joe Biden on Monday approved an emergency declaration for New York, freeing up federal resources to help disaster relief efforts in Erie and Genesee counties.
• One hundred military police from the New York National Guard are heading to Erie County, along with state police from other parts of New York, Poloncarz said. New Jersey state police will fill in for New York officers diverted to Buffalo, he said.
• Buffalo Niagara International Airport is expected to stay closed until late Wednesday morning, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority said, after snow equipment was brought in from Pittsburgh to help it reopen.
• More supermarkets in western New York were expected to reopen after road conditions had paralyzed earlier efforts to distribute stockpiled ready-to-eat meals to food banks, officials said.
• Major highways – including the New York State Thruway, Interstates 20 and 990, and Routes 400 and 219 – have reopened, the state Transportation Department’s Rochester office announced.
It was a signal, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a tweet, “that we are finally turning the corner on this once-in-a-generation storm.”
‘Gut-wrenching’ effort to check on residents plods on
The storm in Buffalo has been deemed more ferocious than the blizzard of 1977, which left 23 people there dead. The weekend weather “was just horrendous,” Poloncarz said earlier. “And it was horrendous for 24 hours in a row.”
Indeed, blizzard conditions were recorded for 37.5 hours, CNN meteorologist Tom Sater said, noting, “That just doesn’t happen.”
Even emergency and recovery vehicles were at times stuck in snow. “We had rescuers rescuing the rescuers,” Buffalo Deputy Mayor Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney told “CNN This Morning” on Tuesday, adding those problems have been resolved.
Hundreds of vehicles were abandoned in the snow in Buffalo, New York State Police Acting Superintendent Steven Nigrelli said, adding authorities were going door-to-door, car-to-car, checking for people.