West NY death toll rises to 27 due to storm's cold and chaos

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BUFFALO, NY (AP) – The death toll from a pre-Christmas blizzard that crippled the Buffalo area and much of the country has risen to 27 in western New York, officials said Monday, as the region excavated from one of the worst weather-related disasters in its history.

The dead were found in their cars, houses and in snowbanks. Some died while digging in the snow. The storm that battered much of the country is now responsible for at least 48 deaths across the country, with rescue and recovery efforts continuing on Monday.

The blizzard hit western New York on Friday and Saturday, stranding drivers, knocking out power and preventing emergency workers from reaching residents in icy homes and trapped cars.

Huge drifts of snow almost covered cars on Monday and there were thousands of homes, some decked out in unlit festive displays, left dark by the power outage.

The massive storm is expected to claim more lives as it trapped some residents indoors and knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses.

The extreme weather extended from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. About 60% of the US population faced some kind of winter weather warning or warning, and temperatures dropped dramatically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians.

The National Weather Service said Sunday that frigid Arctic air “enveloping much of the eastern half of the US” will slowly move away.

Buffalo saw hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions that stalled emergency response efforts.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said nearly all of the city’s fire trucks were grounded on Saturday and she implored people on Sunday to respect an ongoing driving ban in the region. The National Weather Service said total snowfall at Buffalo Niagara International Airport was 1.1 meters at 7 am on Sunday. Officials said the airport would be closed until Tuesday morning.

With snow falling on pristine and impassable streets, forecasters have warned that an additional 1 to 2 feet (30 to 60 centimeters) of snow is possible in some areas by early Monday morning amid gusts of snow. 40 mph (64 km/h) wind. Police said late on Sunday there had been two “isolated” instances of looting during the storm.

Two people died at their homes in the New York suburb of Cheektowaga on Friday when emergency crews were unable to reach them in time to treat their medical conditions. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said 10 more people were killed during the storm, including six in Buffalo, and warned there could be more dead.

“Some were found in cars, some were found on the street in snowbanks,” Poloncarz said. “We know that there are people who have been trapped in cars for more than two days.”

Freezing conditions and a power outage had the buffalo struggling to get anywhere warm amid what Hochul called the longest blizzard conditions on record in the city.

Ditjak Ilunga of Gaithersburg, Md., was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ont., for Christmas with his daughters on Friday when his SUV got stuck in Buffalo. Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine running, buffeted by the wind and nearly buried in snow.

Around 4 am on Saturday, with fuel almost running out, Ilunga made a desperate choice to risk the howling storm to reach nearby shelter. He carried 6-year-old Destiny on his back while 16-year-old Cindy clung to her Pomeranian puppy, following her footprints through the hills.

“If I stay in this car, I will die here with my children,” Ilunga remembers thinking. He wept as the family walked through the doors of the shelter. “It is something I will never forget in my life.”

Travelers’ weather woes continued, with hundreds of flight cancellations already and more expected after a bomb cyclone – when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a severe storm – developed near the Great Lakes, triggering blizzard conditions, including high winds and snow.

The storm knocked out power in communities from Maine to Seattle. According to poweroutage.us, less than 100,000 customers were without power on Monday at 7 am EDT – down from a peak of 1.7 million.

The mid-Atlantic grid operator urged its 65 million customers to conserve energy amid Saturday’s freeze.

Storm-related deaths were reported across the country, from six drivers killed in accidents in Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky to a woman who fell through ice on the Wisconsin River.

In Jackson, Mississippi, city officials announced on Christmas Day that residents must now boil their drinking water due to bursting water lines due to low temperatures.

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Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press journalist Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles; Jonathan Mattise in Charleston, West Virginia; Ron Todt in Philadelphia; John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Jeff Martin in Atlanta; and Wilson Ring in Stowe, Vermont, contributed to this report.

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