As Buffalo begins to thaw, US police check for victims house to house

A resident who abandoned his car after getting stuck on Christmas Eve waits for help starting it in Buffalo, New York, on Dec 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BUFFALO, New York - National Guard troops trudged door-to-door in search of additional winter storm victims on Wednesday, traversing parts of Buffalo hit by prolonged blackouts, following a deadly Christmas blizzard that buried New York’s second-largest city in blinding snow.

The fiercest blizzard to strike western New York in 45 years was part of a wider winter storm front and arctic blast that drove freezing temperatures as far south as the Mexican border for days, leaving scores dead nationwide, including at least 38 in the Buffalo area.

Many of the dead in and around Buffalo, which lies at the western edge of Lake Erie near the Canadian border, were found frozen in cars or in snowbanks, while some died from cardiac arrest while shovelling snow, according to Mr Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County executive.

Erie County updated the death toll from the storm on Wednesday, reporting 37 deaths in Erie County, with one other person reported dead as a result of the storm in neighboring Niagara County.

Mr Poloncarz said the National Guard was conducting wellness checks in each neighbourhood of Buffalo and its suburbs where electricity was out for lengthy periods, looking for anyone who may have suffered hypothermia or some other medical distress while trapped indoors without power and heat.

“We are fearful there are individuals who may have perished living alone, or two people who are not doing well in an establishment, especially those who still don’t have power,” he told reporters.

He said paramedic squads would also visit every household where residents had called the county’s special snowstorm hotline for help but were beyond the physical reach of emergency personnel at the height of the blizzard.

Nearly all electricity had been restored by Wednesday morning throughout Erie County, with fewer than 1,000 homes that utility crews hoped to have back in service by the end of the day, Mr Poloncarz said.

At the same time, nearly 80 front-end loaders were working around the clock to shovel tonnes of snow into about 120 dump trucks to be hauled to disposal lots. The goal was to get at least one lane of traffic open on each street by Wednesday night, Mr Poloncarz said.

As the storm’s remnants tapered off to flurries early on Wednesday, the National Weather Service reported that Buffalo, ground zero of the storm, had received more than 4.5 feet (140cm) of snow since late last week. But howling winds piled up drifts far higher across the region, burying hundreds of vehicles, including snow ploughs, ambulances and tow trucks.

The mercury climbed above freezing on Wednesday, and forecasts called for the thaw to continue with spring-like temperatures and showers likely by week’s end. The abrupt shift was likely to cause flooding and ice jams on local creeks while rapidly turning the region’s frozen landscape to slush.

“We’re actually expecting a rapid melt over the next two days, because we’re going to hit 50 degrees (Fahrenheit, 10 deg C),” Mr Poloncarz said. “We are preparing with the state for the possibility of flooding.”

A driving ban remained in effect for Buffalo with military and New York City police officers called in to wave cars off the road and turn away traffic trying to enter the city.

Even for a region accustomed to heavy bouts of “lake-effect” snow - the result of moisture picked up by frigid air moving over warmer lake waters - the latest blizzard ranked as one of the most paralysing ever in Western New York.

A tree removal service sets up to tackle the aftermath of the blizzard in Buffalo, New York, on Decr 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

In terms of its ferocity, duration and death toll, the Christmas storm exceeded a 1977 blizzard that killed nearly 30 people and was the local benchmark against which all such weather events had since been measured.

This week’s thaw was part of a larger warming trend unfolding across the eastern third of the United States and will extend past New Year’s Day, with temperatures remaining largely above freezing, said Mr Josh Weiss, a meteorologist with the NWS Weather Prediction Centre in Maryland.

NWS forecasts called for potentially excessive rainfall and heavy mountain snow sweeping much of the West Coast beginning on Thursday, powered by a “potent atmospheric river” expected to hit central and northern California and southwestern Oregon hardest.

Showers and thunderstorms are expected in the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi Valley, the weather service said.

An inquiry will be opened into the blackouts caused by extreme weather during the winter storm last week, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other North American regulatory authorities said on Wednesday.

The storm, named Elliott, knocked out power for more than 1.5 million homes and businesses across the country.

The commission will probe operations of the bulk power system to identify performance issues and recommend solutions alongside the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and its six regional entities which encompass nearly 400 million customers, mainly in the US and Canada.

“This storm underscores the increasing frequency of significant extreme weather events and underscores the need for the electric sector to change its planning scenarios and preparations for extreme events,” said North American Electric Reliability Corporation chief executive and president Jim Robb.

While most of the power disruptions were caused by weather impacts on electric distribution facilities, some local utilities in the US southeast resorted to rolling blackouts and the bulk-power system elsewhere came under pressure, the regulators said.

“In addition to the load shedding in Tennessee and the Carolinas, multiple energy emergencies were declared and new demand records were set across the continent. And this was in the early weeks of a projected ‘mild’ winter,” Mr Robb said.

In November, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation warned that a large portion of North America was at risk of insufficient electricity supplies during peak winter conditions, due to higher demand projections, generator retirements, vulnerability to extreme weather and fuel supply and natural gas infrastructure limitations. REUTERS

A resident clears snow outside a house in Buffalo, New York, on Dec 27, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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