At least 28 dead in Buffalo’s worst blizzard in 50 years

Photo for The Washington Post by Malik Rainey
Abandoned vehicles litter the New York State Route 33 thruway on Dec. 25.

At least 28 people have died in the catastrophic snowstorm in Western New York, officials announced Monday, marking the blizzard as the region’s deadliest in at least 50 years.

Roads remain impassable and almost 10,000 people are still without power as the unrelenting storm is forecast to drop as much as a foot of additional snow, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said during a Monday afternoon news conference. Rescuers are struggling to free people trapped in their cars, while people stuck in shelters and nursing homes are running out of food.

“This is the worst storm probably in our lifetime and maybe in the history of the city,” Poloncarz said. “And this is not the end yet.”

Much of the county is under a travel ban, with only emergency vehicles and essential workers allowed on the roads. Officials urged people to stay indoors Monday, even if their heat wasn’t working and their cupboards were bare. Driving was still treacherous, and any car that got stuck in a snowbank risked blocking access for an ambulance or rescue crew.

The National Weather Service warned that a “reinforcing shot” of cold air from Canada could cause more snow across the Great Plains and Midwest on Monday, while the eastern half of the country would remain in a deep freeze.

Buffalo Niagara International Airport is closed through at least Wednesday morning. The monitoring site reported more than 7,700 delays and 3,900 cancellations among flights within, into or out of the United States as of Monday evening. Southwest Airlines customers have been hit particularly hard, with two-thirds of the airline’s flights halted on Monday and more cancellations expected on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to CEO Bob Jordan.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) said she requested a federal emergency disaster declaration, which would free up additional resources for the state, during a phone call with President Joe Biden on Monday afternoon. The president signed the declaration later on Monday.

“I know it is frightening and it is exasperating, and you’re asking when is this going to end,” Hochul said. “Please stay at home.”

At least 27 people have died in Erie County, officials announced Monday afternoon – more than double the death toll from the previous day. The dead, who range in age from their mid-20s to 93, have been found in their cars, homes and in snowbanks. At least half died outside, presumably from exposure. Three suffered cardiac arrests while shoveling snow – a common consequence of the cold, which can cause arteries and veins to constrict and blood pressure to skyrocket.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (D) said Monday that 20 people had died in the city. But because that tally has not been cross-checked with figures from the medical examiner’s office, authorities said it was unclear whether those deaths were included in the countywide toll.

In nearby Niagara County, officials said Sunday that a 27-year-old man died of carbon monoxide poisoning after heavy snow covered the vents on his external furnace. A second victim was hospitalized.

Poloncarz warned residents relying on generators to ensure the machines are positioned at least 20 feet from their homes, with the exhaust pipe pointed away from the house.

He expects the death toll to keep rising as first responders eventually reach victims who may have been dead for days.

Buffalo is the nexus of a powerful Arctic blast that has wreaked havoc from Washington to Florida, subjecting more than half the country to some form of winter weather warning or advisory. The Associated Press reported that there have been at least 50 storm-related deaths across the country.

The deep freeze has greatly damaged infrastructure in the South, where power grids and water systems rarely have to tolerate such cold. Residents of Jackson, Miss., where the water system has been floundering for years, were again advised to boil their water over the holiday weekend. The mayor of Selma, Ala., declared a state of emergency as burst pipes put the city at risk of running out of water.

Over the course of the cold wave, more than 6 million customers lost electricity across the country, according to More than 200,000 people in Washington state, New York, Maine, Texas and Virginia were still without power Monday.

As the frigid conditions began to ease in some areas, utilities lifted restrictions aimed at conserving electricity. In the Carolinas, Duke Energy said Monday that it had restored power to thousands and no longer needed customers to curb their energy use.

But New York officials said Monday afternoon that two of the four Buffalo power substations that suffered damage during the storm still require repairs to their circuitry. In one case, a station was buried in an 18-foot snow drift, making it impossible for crews to get in and fix the damage.

Brown, the Buffalo mayor, said his own house lost power and heat during the storm. His family, including a 5-year-old great-nephew, piled on layer upon layer of clothes as the temperature indoors dipped down to 40 degrees.

Meanwhile, the snow is slowing down but refuses to stop. A Weather Service station at the Buffalo airport has recorded 49.2 inches of snowfall in the past three days. With months to go before the end of winter, the city has already surpassed its normal snowfall average for the entire season.

Even as meteorologists forecast warmer days ahead for Buffalo later this week, the western half of the country must brace for another storm. The Weather Service warned of a cyclone moving across the West Coast toward the Rockies, bringing high winds and the threat of flash floods.

The days-long combination of high winds, relentless snowfall and brutal cold has devastated a region that prides itself on handling wild winter weather with aplomb. By Monday, more people in Western New York had died than in the historic blizzard of 1977, which dropped as much as 100 inches on some parts of the region.

Hochul said state response teams had rescued at least 550 people from freezing homes and cars over the course of the storm. But conditions were so bad at one point that even emergency crews and state troopers couldn’t operate.

“The snow fell with a vengeance, with a ferocity [that is] the worst I’ve ever seen,” Poloncarz said.

The depth of snow and scale of power outages imperiled even those who stayed at home. Burst pipes flooded houses. People shivered through their second or third day without heat.

A Facebook group for victims of the storm was filled with desperate people seeking support, advice and answers. A nurse wondered what route she should take to reach her job at the hospital. Another man needed someone to check on his elderly father, who had stopped answering his phone. A woman was going into labor. Another parent had no formula to feed her baby.

Edie Syta, an art teacher for Buffalo Public Schools, said her elderly mother was among those who died trapped in their cars in the bitter cold.

Stanislawa Jozwiak, a 73-year-old refugee from Poland, set out Friday morning in the direction of a specialty market across town. Several hours later, Jozwiak called her daughter: Her car had slid off the road, and she was stuck in snow. The older woman wasn’t quite sure where she was, surrounded by swirling white.

“Mama, we’re coming for you,” Syta said.

“I need a miracle from God,” her mother replied.

Syta and her husband tried to dig out their own car to rescue Jozwiak, but they could barely make it up the street. She called the police, the snow hotline, a friend who used to work in snow plowing – anyone who might be able to help.

When there was still no news on the 25th, Syta and her brother agreed to make a Christmas meal. Maybe it would give them hope.

But just as they began to eat, Syta’s phone rang. Friends had found her mother’s car on the highway, buried in two feet of snow. Jozwiak’s body was inside.

“It hasn’t sunk in,” Syta said Monday. “I feel empty. I feel confused. . . . And then there are moments when you want to just swear and scream at the top of your lungs, to say, ‘Why?'”

Syta still doesn’t know why her mother left the safety of her home that morning. Perhaps Jozwiak, who wasn’t fluent in English, didn’t understand the severity of the weather report. Maybe she was simply determined to get fresh carp, cabbage and other ingredients for the family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner.

Syta knows there were scores of other people trapped in the snow, just like her mother was. She can’t help but imagine how many of them have died, how many people are about receive that terrible phone call.

“So many families are going to be broken,” she said through tears. “And they’re never going to look at Christmas the same. I never will.”

– – –

Justin Sondel in Buffalo contributed to this report.