‘It was just a crying day’: Families mourn for those killed in the US snowstorm

Snow continues to fall on Niagra Street in Buffalo, New York, on Dec 27, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK - Trapped in her car as a blinding snowstorm engulfed Buffalo, New York, Ms Anndel Nicole Taylor, 22, texted her family that she was scared. She had been calling emergency services for hours Friday but kept being put on hold.

At midnight, with 4 feet (1.2m) of snow on the ground and her car still stuck, she told her family she was going to try to get some sleep.

“That was the last time we spoke to her,” said her older sister, Ms Shawnequa Renee Brown, 35, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Ms Taylor was found dead in her car on Christmas Eve.

A certified nursing assistant, Ms Taylor had moved from Charlotte to Buffalo about two years ago to care for their ailing father. On Christmas Day, the family gathered in Charlotte, mourning at what should have been a celebration. Ms Taylor’s presents were under the tree, still wrapped.

“It was just a crying day,” Ms Brown said. “All day long, we just cried.”

In western New York, the death toll from the punishing winter storm continued to climb four days after the snow began last Friday; more than 30 people were reported dead after the mayor of Buffalo added eight more fatalities on Tuesday morning.

The victims were medical professionals trying to get home for Christmas, a soon-to-be father stepping out for milk. One man, found dead in a snowbank, died on his 56th birthday.

Four days after the storm began, the city was still working through roughly 1,000 unanswered emergency calls – many of which were likely duplicates and calls from stranded motorists – placed since Friday morning, Mr Joseph Gramaglia, the Buffalo police commissioner, said in a news briefing Tuesday.

As the storm first barrelled in, the Police Department was able to rescue about 65 people on Friday, the commissioner said, “and then the weather just became too bad”.

Mayor Byron Brown defended the city’s response on Tuesday, noting that officials had warned the public not to drive after Thursday.

“We are certainly not blaming individuals who were driving; our goal was to save everyone, to respond to every emergency call,” he said. “But the act of driving during a blizzard during zero visibility and whiteout conditions, as you can surmise, made the emergency response much more difficult and much more complicated.”

The Police Department was able to rescue about 65 people on Friday. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Abdul Sharifu was among those who took a chance.

On Saturday, with his pregnant wife due to give birth next week, Mr Sharifu, 26, ventured out in his car for groceries, despite her warning him not to, according to a friend, Mr Enock Rushikana.

On Monday, the body of Mr Sharifu, a Congolese refugee who fled war in 2017 and resettled in Buffalo, was identified by a friend at John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital. His car had been found Saturday, abandoned on the corner of Main and Utica streets; his friends believe he had become stuck and tried to walk home.

He had been known by the nickname “911”, for his giving nature and propensity to drop everything to help others in need in his tightknit community of people who identify as members of the tribal Bafuliru group, Mr Rushikana said. He had been overjoyed about becoming a father to a son.

“It’s his first child,” said Mr Rushikana, who considered Mr Sharifu a nephew. “He was very excited.”

On Saturday, Christmas Eve, disturbing video of a body apparently frozen in a snowbank began circulating. It appeared to be Mr William Clay, who went by Romello, according to a GoFundMe for funeral expenses created by his sister, Ms Sophia Clay. On that day, she wrote, he would have turned 56.

A gas station canopy lays on its side after high winds and heavy snow along Lake Shore Boulevard in New York on Dec 27, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

On Tuesday, cleanup efforts continued in Buffalo, a city of 275,000 along Lake Erie. About 4,000 people still remained without power, according to the mayor’s office, and the community feared that the death toll would rise as emergency workers reached more stranded vehicles and powerless homes.

An additional 3-5 inches (7.6-12.7cm) of snow was expected in the region, according to the National Weather Service.

The travel ban that was instated when the blizzard began remained in place for Buffalo on Tuesday morning, although it was reduced to an advisory in the nearby community of Cheektowaga, announced Mr Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County executive.

The volume of snow, he wrote on Twitter, was impossible to plow. It had to be scooped up by dump trucks and carted away. The Buffalo Niagara International Airport and all county offices in Erie County remained closed Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced more support to people in western New York including waiving ATM fees and increasing cash withdrawal limits, as well as measures to expedite insurance claims.

Amid the chaos of the storm, there were also moments of astounding grace.

On Christmas Eve, Ms Sha’Kyra Aughtry found a 64-year-old man crying and disoriented in the snow, according to videos Ms Aughtry posted on Facebook. Her partner, whom she identified only as Trent, carried him into their home. They called emergency services, she said, but no help came.

An excavator digs into Potomac Avenue to repair a water line in Buffalo, New York, on Dec 26, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The man – whom a friend identified as Mr Joe White, an intellectually disabled man who worked for 40 years at the North Park movie theatre, in a GoFundMe account set up for his medical care – had become lost in the storm.

“When I found he had bags frozen to his hands, I had to cut the bags off his hands because his hands had ice bricks,” Ms Aughtry is seen on video telling rescuers. They arrived on Christmas after she posted on Facebook desperately seeking medical attention for the man, who had severe frostbite.

“I had to cut off his socks; I washed him up and fed him,” she said to rescuers who plowed her driveway and took the man to the hospital.

She turned to the man. “Come on, Joey, don’t cry. I’m here,” she said to him. “I’m your friend forever.”

On Sunday, the marquee of North Side was lit up. “Thank You Sha’Kyra and Trent,” it read. “Get Well Soon Joe.” NYTIMES

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