© Reuters. Vehicles are left stranded on the road following a winter storm that hit the Buffalo region in Amherst, New York, U.S., December 25, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) – Road and utility crews faced the task on Monday of digging out and restoring some normalcy around Buffalo, New York, where a blizzard considered the area’s worst in 45 years buried snow plows, stranded motorists in cars and killed at least 13 people.
The lethal blizzard took form late on Friday and pummeled western New York through the Christmas holiday weekend, capping an Arctic freeze and winter storm front that had extended over most of the United States for days, as far south as the Mexican border.
At least 30 people have died in U.S. weather-related incidents since late last week, according to an NBC News tally, while CNN put the total number of fatalities at 26.
The greater Buffalo region, lying at the edge of Lake Erie near the Canadian border was one of the hardest-hit places.
Numbing cold combined with howling winds and heavy “lake-effect” snow – the result of moisture picked up by frigid air moving over warmer lake waters – produced a storm that Governor Kathy Hochul said would go down in history as “the Blizzard of ’22.”
The storm’s official death toll in Buffalo and elsewhere in Erie County climbed to 13 on Sunday, and was expected to rise as more bodies found in snow drifts or buried vehicles were examined and confirmed as weather-related fatalities, authorities said.
The governor called it an “epic, once-in-a-lifetime” weather disaster that ranked as the fiercest winter storm to hit Buffalo, New York state’s second-largest city, since a crippling 1977 blizzard that killed nearly 30 people.
The latest blizzard, which initially overwhelmed emergency crews, came nearly six weeks after a record-setting but shorter-lived lake-effect storm struck western New York.
RESCUING THE RESCUERS
Despite a ban on road travel imposed since Friday, hundreds of Erie County motorists were stranded in their vehicles over the weekend, with National Guard troops mobilized to help with rescues hindered by blinding white-out conditions.
Authorities were expected to decide Monday morning whether to extend the ban.
County Chief Executive Mark Poloncarz told reporters that snow drifts as high as 8 feet on roadways were too thick and heavy to clear with conventional snow-removal equipment.
Many snow plows, tow trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles dispatched on Saturday and Sunday became stuck in the snow, “and we had to send rescue missions to rescue the rescuers,” he said.
The Buffalo police department posted an online plea to the public for assistance, asking those who “have a snow mobile and are willing to help” to call a hotline for instructions.
Although power had been restored to most Erie County utility customers, as of Sunday evening about 15,000 homes remained without electricity, according to Poloncarz.
He said one electrical substation knocked offline was sealed off by an 18-foot-tall mound of snow, and utility crews found the entire facility frozen inside.
At the request of state officials, Hochul said, local power companies had pre-positioned some 7,000 utility workers ahead of the storm on Friday, but blinding, drifting snow had made it difficult for crews to reach stricken equipment.
Efforts to clear snow-clogged roads were likewise stymied.
“It is not a matter of resources – bodies and equipment – it is a matter of mobility and access,” Hochul said.
Hochul told reporters on Sunday that the Biden administration had agreed to support her request for a federal disaster declaration and she expected formal approval shortly.
While the official blizzard warning for the greater Buffalo region was lifted on Sunday, officials warned that blizzard-like conditions persisted in some areas, and that more snow was in the forecast through Tuesday.