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‘Blizzard of the century’: Death toll rises, military to enforce driving ban in Buffalo

(BUFFALO, N.Y.) — At least 55 people have died nationwide from the wintry weather wreaking havoc across the U.S. over Christmas weekend.

The most deaths are in western New York, where 32 people have died in the wake of a massive lake-effect snowstorm, according to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and local officials.

Hochul called the storm “the blizzard of the century” in western New York during a news conference Monday and said the White House has promised to quickly approve an emergency disaster declaration. President Joe Biden said he spoke to Hochul on Monday afternoon. He approved a federal emergency declaration in New York Monday evening.

Thirty-one of New York’s deaths are in Erie County, which includes the city of Buffalo, Mark Poloncarz, the executive of Erie County, said Tuesday. One storm-related death was reported in neighboring Niagara County, officials said.

Poloncarz said Tuesday morning that while three new storm-related deaths were confirmed overnight by the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office, the death toll in Erie County rose by only one because the coroner determined the first two people reported dead during the storm in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga were not directly related to the blizzard but due to “medical conditions that were not savable.”

Among the storm-related causes of death confirmed by the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office were three people who suffered heart attacks while shoveling or blowing snow, 14 people who were found outside and three who died due to an EMS delay.

“We do expect that there will be more,” Poloncarz said.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said 18 bodies were recovered in the city of Buffalo; most were found by police inside vehicles.

Among those who perished in the storm in Buffalo was William Clay, who died on his 56th birthday, his sister, Sophia Clay, told ABC News. Sophia Clay said her brother was on his way to a store on Friday when the weather worsened. His body was found frozen on a street, authorities said.

William Clay, according to his sister, was the father of one son, a grandfather of two, and one of seven siblings. She said he read the Bible daily and could quote scripture by heart.

“He’s one of those people that it was in his heart. He spoke it; he lived it. He was a great brother, he was a great grandfather, he was a great friend,” Sophia Clay said.

A driving state of emergency remains in effect in Erie County and Poloncarz said police will start issuing summons to people driving around — “joyriding” — in violation of the driving ban. He said the city of Buffalo remains impassable.

A driving ban remained in effect for the city of Buffalo Tuesday, but Poloncarz said people were not heeding the ban and getting stuck, causing delays for emergency vehicles, snowplows and other large pieces of equipment trying to clear the streets of mountains of snow and abandoned vehicles.

He said 100 National Guard police officers and additional New York State troopers are expected to mobilize in Buffalo Tuesday to prevent unauthorized vehicles from entering the city.

“People just are not obeying the driving ban,” said Poloncarz, justifying the use of military police to enforce the ban.

Buffalo received more than 50 inches of snow over the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Reports of looting

Poloncarz also said that police are investigating scattered reports of looting in Buffalo.

“I’m heartbroken about the deaths, just absolutely devastated to see as many deaths. And then to find out that there’s looting going on in our community at the same time we’re still recovering bodies is just horrible,” Poloncarz said.

Daniel Neaverth Jr., the Erie County commissioner of Emergency Services, said more than a dozen gas stations in the county have been reported inoperable “because the convenience side of them has been looted and the equipment inside has been rendered ineffective and thus the pumps for the fueling are ineffective.”

Neaverth said the looting was hampering emergency vehicles from fueling up.

“So if you don’t think there’s a trickle down from going looting and grabbing individual little things, this is a drastic implication for us that we now have to deal with to find alternate fuel sources,” Neaverth said.

Brown said police responded to several looting in the city of Buffalo and have made some arrests. The mayor said it was “reprehensible” that people are taking advantage of a natural disaster, calling the looters “the lowest of the low.”

Poloncarz said 12,473 utility customers countywide remain without power on Monday and he warned some might not have electricity until Tuesday due to the “serious nature of the substation damage.” He said power was restored to about 13,000 customers overnight.

At one point, 23,000 households lost power, said Jackie Bray, the state commissioner of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. Bray said 12,500 households remain without electricity Monday.

Polocarz said that fewer than 5,000 utility customers in Erie County were still without power Tuesday morning.

‘Winter wonderland tour’ bus rescue

Polocarz added that hundreds of cars were left abandoned on roadways across the county, including tractor-trailer rigs and buses.

“There are cars everywhere pointing the wrong direction on roads. They’ve basically been plowed in and need to be dug out and towed,” Poloncarz said.

Among the hundreds who had to be rescued was a group of tourists from around the world on a “winter wonderland bus tour,” Poloncarz said. He said the bus got stuck in the Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna and that rescue crews had to evacuate passengers and take them to a nearby shelter.

“These tourists are getting more than they bargained for with regards to their ‘winter wonderland tour’ as they’ve gone through one of the worst storms in U.S. history,” Poloncarz said.

The “colossal” snowstorm brought winds of nearly 80 mph to Buffalo, the governor said.

“This will go down in history as the most devastating storm” in Buffalo, Hochul said during a Christmas morning news conference.

Poloncarz said Monday that the death toll has now outpaced the Blizzard of 1977.

Buffalo initiated a travel ban as blizzard conditions moved in.

“I cannot overstate how dangerous the conditions still are,” Hochul said Sunday, urging people to stay off the roads on Christmas.

This storm marked the first time in history that the Buffalo Fire Department couldn’t respond to any calls, officials said. National Guardsmen have been called in.

Hundreds of people have been rescued from cars, Hochul said, adding, “We still have people who need to be rescued.”

Buffalo’s airport will be closed until Wednesday. Pittsburgh’s airport is sending plows to help dig out the runways.

The National Hockey League canceled the Tuesday game between the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets due to the weather and the Sabres not being able to travel from Buffalo in time for the game.

Weather fatalities across the nation

The storm comes as brutally cold air slammed the country on Christmas morning.

The temperature plunged to minus 9 degrees in Minneapolis, 2 degrees in Chicago, 3 degrees in Denver, 15 degrees in New York, 16 degrees in Atlanta and 21 degrees in Dallas.

More than 6.3 million customers across the United States were without power at some point over the holiday weekend, officials said.

More than 165,000 customers woke up without power on Christmas morning across Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida. The majority of those customers had power restored by Monday, though 15,800 customers in Maine and 13,900 in New York — the vast majority in Erie County — remained without power Monday afternoon.

Airlines continue to cancel thousands of flights in what is becoming a Christmas nightmare for so many. More than 18,200 flights have been canceled since Wednesday, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking website. More than 3,000 flights were canceled into, out of or within the United States on Christmas Eve, and more than 2,000 flights were canceled on Christmas Day.

Another 3,500 flights were canceled in the United States Monday, as of 3:30 p.m. Southwest Airlines is having significant systemwide issues and has canceled 2,600, or about 65%, of scheduled flights.

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