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New York emergency crews raced to rescue stranded residents on Monday from what authorities called the “blizzard of the century,” a relentless storm that has claimed nearly 50 lives across the United States and caused the Christmas travel chaos.
Blizzard conditions persist in parts of the northeastern United States, stubborn remnants of a massive swell of extreme weather that gripped the country for several days, causing widespread power outages, travel delays and at minus 49 deaths in nine states, according to official figures.
In New York State, authorities described fierce conditions, particularly in Buffalo, with hours-long whiteouts, bodies discovered in vehicles and under snow banks, and emergency personnel going ” car to car” in search of survivors.
The perfect storm of ferocious snow squalls, howling winds and sub-zero temperatures has forced the cancellation of more than 15,000 US flights in recent days, including nearly 4,000 on Monday, according to tracking site Flightaware.com.
Buffalo — an Erie County city no stranger to winter weather — is the epicenter of the crisis, buried in staggering amounts of snow.
“This is definitely the blizzard of the century,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters, adding that it was “far too early to say it’s over.”
Hochul said some towns in western New York got “30 to 40 inches (0.75 to 1 meter) of snow overnight.”
Later Monday, Hochul spoke with President Joe Biden, who offered “the full strength of the federal government” to support New York State and said he and first lady Jill Biden are praying for those who have lost loved ones in the storm, according to a White House statement.
Biden also approved an emergency declaration for the state, the White House said.
The National Weather Service forecast up to 14 more inches of snow Monday, in addition to the several feet that have already buried the city, as officials struggled to get emergency services back on line.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz tweeted Monday afternoon that the death toll from the blizzard had risen to 27 countywide, including 14 people found outdoors and three found inside a car.
Speaking at a press conference earlier today, Poloncarz said Erie’s death toll would likely exceed that of the infamous Buffalo blizzard in 1977, when nearly 30 people died.
With no more snow forecast and most of Buffalo “impassable”, he joined Hochul in warning residents to take shelter and stay put.
Members of the National Guard and other teams rescued hundreds of people from snow-covered cars and homes without power, but authorities said more people remained trapped.
Erie County Sheriff John Garcia called the storm “the worst” he had ever seen, with periods of zero visibility and authorities unable to respond to emergency calls.
“It was heartbreaking to get calls where families are with their kids and they say they’re freezing,” he told CNN.
Hochul, a Buffalo native, said she was stunned by what she saw while on a reconnaissance tour of the city.
“It’s (like) going to a war zone, and the vehicles along the roads are shocking,” Hochul said, describing 2.4-meter drifts against houses as well as snow plows and vehicles. relief “buried” in the snow.
Extreme weather conditions sent temperatures below zero across the 48 contiguous U.S. states over the weekend, including communities in Texas along the Mexican border where some newly arrived migrants struggled to find a shelter.
Massive power outages
At one point on Saturday, nearly 1.7 million customers were without power in the bitter cold, according to tracker poweroutage.us.
That number has dropped significantly, although there were still some 50,000 without power Monday midday on the US East Coast.
Due to frozen electrical substations, some Erie County residents are not expected to return to power until Tuesday, with one substation apparently buried in 18 feet of snow, a senior county official said.
Buffalo International Airport remains closed through Tuesday and a driving ban remains in effect for the city and much of Erie County.
Ice on the roads and whiteout conditions also caused the temporary closure of some of the nation’s busiest transportation routes, including part of Interstate 70.
Drivers have been warned not to hit the roads – even as the country hits what is usually its busiest time of year for travel.
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The “blizzard of the century” kills nearly 50 in the United States
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