A brutal winter storm brought danger and Christmas Day misery to millions of Americans on Sunday, as heavy snow and freezing cold swept across parts of the eastern United States, with weather-related deaths rising to at least 32.
A crisis unfolded in Buffalo, western New York, where a storm left the city on lockdown, with emergency services unable to reach the worst-hit areas.
“It’s (like) going to a war zone and the vehicles on the sides of the roads are shocking,” said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a native of Buffalo, where 8 feet of snow is flowing and the power is out. outages have caused life-threatening conditions.
Hochul told reporters Sunday evening that residents were still in the throes of a “very dangerous life-threatening situation” and warned anyone in the area to stay indoors.
More than 200,000 people in several eastern states woke up without power on Christmas morning and many others had their holiday travel plans upended, although the five-day storm of blizzard conditions and wild winds showed signs of easing.
The extreme weather sent windchills in the contiguous 48 US states below freezing over the weekend, stranded vacationers with thousands of canceled flights and trapped residents in their homes covered in ice and snow.
Thirty-two weather-related deaths have been confirmed in nine states, including at least 13 in Erie County where Buffalo is located, with officials warning the number is likely to rise.
Officials described historically dangerous conditions in the snow-prone Buffalo region, with hours of whiteouts and bodies discovered in vehicles and under snow banks as emergency workers scrambled to search for those in need of rescue.
The city’s international airport remains closed until Tuesday, and a driving ban remains in effect for all of Erie County.
“Now we have what will be talked about not only today, but for generations (as) the storm of the 22nd,” Hochul said, adding that the brutality had surpassed the region’s previous historic storm of 1977 in “intensity, longevity, ferocity of winds”.
Because of frozen electrical substations, some residents were not expected to get power back until Tuesday, with one frozen substation said to be buried under 18 feet of snow, a senior county official said.
“The conditions are very bad”
The National Weather Service warned that blizzard conditions in New York’s western Great Lakes region caused by lake-effect snow were continuing Sunday, with “additional snow accumulations of 2 to 3 feet by this evening.”
A couple in Buffalo, across the border from Canada, told AFP on Saturday that with roads completely impassable, they would not make the 10-minute drive to see family for Christmas.
“It’s hard because the conditions are just so bad … a lot of fire departments aren’t even sending trucks to calls,” said 40-year-old Rebecca Bortolin.
A wider travel nightmare was in full effect for millions.
The storm, one of the worst in decades, forced the cancellation of nearly 3,000 US flights on Sunday, in addition to about 3,500 canceled on Saturday and nearly 6,000 on Friday, according to the tracking site Flightaware.com.
Travelers were stranded or delayed at airports on Christmas Day, including Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit and New York.
Icy roads and whiteout conditions also led to the temporary closure of some of the nation’s busiest transportation routes, including Interstate 70.
Motorists were warned to stay off the roads – even as the nation reached its busiest time of the year for travel.
Extreme weather has taxed power grids heavily, with multiple power providers urging millions of people to reduce usage to minimize power outages in places like North Carolina and Tennessee.
At one point Saturday, nearly 1.7 million customers were without power in the bitter cold, according to tracker poweroutage.us.
The figure had dropped sharply by Sunday night, although more than 48,000 customers in eastern states were still without power.
In British Columbia, Canada, a bus rollover Saturday believed to have been caused by icy roads left four people dead and sent 53 to hospital, including two still in critical condition early Sunday.
Hundreds of thousands were left without power in Ontario and Quebec, many flights were canceled in major cities and passenger train service between Toronto and Ottawa was suspended.