Mmillions of people hunkered down against a deep freeze Sunday morning to ride out the freezing storm that has killed at least 24 people across the United States and is expected to claim more lives after trapping some residents inside homes with piling snowdrifts and knocking out power to several hundred thousand homes and businesses.
The scale of the storm has been almost unprecedented, stretching from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the Mexican border. About 60% of the U.S. population faced some kind of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures fell sharply below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, the National Weather Service said.
About 1,346 domestic and international flights were canceled early Sunday, according to tracking site FlightAware.
Forecasters said a bomb cyclone – when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm – had developed near the Great Lakes, setting up blizzard conditions including high winds and snow.
The storm unleashed its full fury on Buffalo, with hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions, crippling emergency efforts — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said nearly every fire truck in the city was stranded Saturday — and closing the airport until Monday, according to officials. The National Weather Service said the snow at Buffalo Niagara International Airport was 43 inches (109 centimeters) as of 7 a.m. Sunday.
Daylight Sunday revealed cars nearly covered in 6-foot drifts of snow and thousands of houses, some decked out in unlit holiday displays, dark from lack of power. With snow swirling down untouched and impassable streets, forecasters warned that another 1 to 2 feet of snow was possible in some areas through early Monday morning amid 40 mph gusts.
Two people died in their suburban Cheektowaga, New York, homes on Friday when emergency crews couldn’t reach them in time to treat their medical conditions, and another died in Buffalo. Four more deaths were confirmed overnight, bringing the total to seven in Erie County, where County Executive Mark Poloncarz warned there could be more dead.
“Some were found in cars, some were found on the street in banks of snow,” Poloncarz said. “We know there are people stuck in cars for more than 2 days.”
Freezing conditions and day-old power outages left Buffalo residents scrambling to get out of their homes to anywhere that had heat amid what New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called the city’s longest sustained blizzard ever. But with streets under a thick blanket of white, that wasn’t an option for people like Jeremy Manahan, who charged his phone in his parked car after nearly 29 hours without power.
“There is one warm-up room, but it would be too far for me to get to. Obviously I can’t drive because I’m stuck,” Manahan said. “And you can’t be outside for more than 10 minutes without getting frostbite.”
Ditjak Ilunga of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ontario, for Christmas with his daughters on Friday when their SUV got caught in Buffalo. Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine running in the vehicle which was battered by wind and almost buried in snow.
At 4am on Saturday, with fuel almost gone, Ilunga made a desperate choice to risk the howling storm to reach a nearby shelter. He carried 6-year-old Destiny on his back while 16-year-old Cindy grabbed their Pomeranian puppy and stepped into his footsteps as they trudged through drifts.
“If I stay in this car, I’m going to die here with my kids,” he recalled thinking, but believed they had to try. He cried as the family walked through the shelter’s doors. “It’s something I will never forget in my life.”
The storm knocked out power in communities from Maine to Seattle. But heat and light were steadily restored across the United States. According to poweroutage.us, fewer than 300,000 customers were without power at 8 a.m. EDT Sunday — down from a peak of 1.7 million. In North Carolina, fewer than 6,600 customers were without power — down from a peak of 485,000 or more.
Concerns about the need for rolling blackouts in eastern states eased Sunday after PJM Interconnection, the mid-Atlantic grid operator, said its utilities could meet today’s peak power usage. PJM had asked the 65 million consumers in its territory on Saturday to conserve electricity because of struggles by some power plants to operate amid freezing temperatures.
Across the six New England states, about 121,300 customers remained without power Sunday, with Maine still hardest hit.
In New York, more than 39,000 households were still without power Sunday, including 27,000 in Erie County, as crews battled high winds and found substations damaged. Hochul said even the National Guard, which now has 200 people on the ground and another 200 expected by Monday, was struggling to get stuck in the snow.
Storm-related deaths were reported in recent days across the country: seven in Erie County, New York; 10 died in several accidents in Ohio, including a pileup involving about 50 vehicles, a man whose sports car crashed into a snowplow and an electrical work worker; four motorists killed in separate crashes in Missouri and Kansas; a Vermont woman struck by a falling branch; an apparently homeless man found in the middle of Colorado’s freezing temperatures; a woman who fell through the Wisconsin ice.
In Florida, the thermometer dipped below freezing for the first time in nearly five years at Tampa International Airport, hitting 43 degrees (6.1 degrees Celsius) in West Palm Beach, according to the National Weather Service. The drop in temperature and freezing sleet contributed to iguanas falling out of the trees since cold-blooded reptiles are usually immobilized in unusually cold weather.
Along Interstate 71 in Kentucky, Terry Henderson and her husband, Rick, weathered a 34-hour traffic jam in a rig equipped with a diesel heater, a toilet and a refrigerator after getting stuck trying to drive from Alabama to their home in Ohio to Christmas.
“We should have stayed,” Terry Henderson said after they got moving again on Saturday.
In Buffalo, William Kless was up at 3 a.m. Sunday. He called his 8-, 9- and 12-year-old children at his mother’s house to wish them a Merry Christmas, then set off on his snowmobile for another day of shuttling people from fixed cars and chilly homes to a church that serves as a warming room.
Through heavy, wind-driven snow, he brought about 15 people to the church in Buffalo Saturday, he said, including a family of five transported one by one. He also got a man in need of dialysis, who had spent 17 hours stranded in his car, back home, where he could receive treatment.
“I just felt like I had to,” Kless said
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