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Western New York death toll rises to 28 from cold, storm chaos

The snow piled high in many places in and around Erie County including at this house in North Buffalo from the weekend storm.
Brian Meyer
The snow piled high in many places in and around Erie County including at this house in North Buffalo from the weekend storm.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP & WXXI News) — Buffalo residents hovered around space heaters, hunted for cars buried in snow drifts and looked for more victims Monday, after 28 people died in one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit western New York.

The rest of the United States also was reeling from the ferocious winter storm, with at least another two dozen deaths reported in other parts of the country.

Those who lost their lives around Buffalo were found in cars, homes and snowbanks. Some died while shoveling snow, others when emergency crews could not respond in time to medical crises.

President Joe Biden said his prayers were with the victims' families, and offered federal assistance Monday to the hard-hit state.

Nationwide, the storm is blamed for at least 50 deaths, with rescue and recovery efforts ongoing Monday.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz described the blizzard as "the worst storm probably in our lifetime" and warned there might be more dead. Some people, he noted, were stranded in their cars for more than two days.

"It's just a horrible situation that we can see sort of the light at the end of the tunnel. But this is not the end yet," he said Monday. The National Weather Service said Monday that up to 9 more inches of snow could fall in some areas through Tuesday.

Scientists say the climate change crisis may have contributed to the intensity of the storm. That's because the atmosphere can carry more water vapor, which acts as fuel, said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University, likened a single weather event to an "at-bat" — and the climate as your "batting average."

"It's hard to say," Serreze said. "But are the dice a little bit loaded now? Absolutely."

The blizzard roared across western New York Friday and Saturday — stranding motorists, knocking out power and preventing emergency crews from reaching residents in frigid homes and stuck cars.

With many grocery stores in the Buffalo area closed and driving bans in place, some people pleaded on social media for donations of food and diapers.

The ferocity of the whiteout conditions tested an area accustomed to punishing snow.

"It doesn't matter if you had 1,000 more pieces of equipment and 10,000 personnel, there's still nothing you could have done in that period. It was that bad," Poloncarz, the county official, said. "I know it's hard for people to believe but it was like looking at a white wall for 14 to 18 hours straight."

Relief is coming this week, though, as forecasts call for temperatures to slowly rise, said Ashton Robinson Cook, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

"Nothing like what we had last week," Cook said adding that the bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm — has weakened. It developed near the Great Lakes, stirring up blizzard conditions, including heavy winds and snow.

Extreme weather stretched from the Great Lakes near Canada, down to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. About 60% of the U.S. population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians.

Some 3,410 domestic and international flights were canceled on Monday as of about 3 p.m. EDT, according to the tracking site FlightAware. The site said Southwest Airlines had 2,497 cancellations — about 60% of its scheduled flights and about 10 times as many as any other major U.S. carrier.

Southwest said the weather was improving, which would "stabilize and improve our situation."

Based on FlightAware data, airports all across the U.S. were suffering from cancellations and delays, including Denver, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle, Baltimore and Chicago.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul toured the aftermath in Buffalo — her hometown — on Monday, calling the blizzard "one for the ages." Almost every fire truck in the city became stranded Saturday, she said.

Hochul noted the storm came a little over a month after the region was inundated with another "historic" snowfall. Between the two storms, snowfall totals are not far off from the 95.4 inches (242 centimeters) the area normally sees in an entire winter season.

The National Weather Service said the snow total at theBuffalo Niagara International Airport stood at 49.2 inches at 10 a.m. Monday. Officials said the airport would be shut through Wednesday morning.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown described the heartbreaking task of retrieving storm victims from cars, homes and streets.

"Our police officers are human. It is painful to find members of your community that are deceased," the mayor said, adding that the blizzard's victims "were trying to walk out during storm conditions, got disoriented and passed away out in the street."

In a nearby home, Shahida Muhammad told WKBW that an outage knocked out power to her 1-year-old son's ventilator. She and the child's father manually administered breaths from Friday until Sunday when rescuers saw her desperate social media posts and came to their aid.

Erie County officials said they went to the family's home Saturday but that no one came to the door. Muhammad said they were there but thankfully her son was doing well despite the ordeal. She described him as "a fighter."