Seven dead in Buffalo as Arctic system freezes eastern U.S. on Christmas Day

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Seven dead in Buffalo as Arctic system freezes eastern U.S. on Christmas Day © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A woman walks her dog in a local park in Hoboken, New Jersey, while storm clouds pass by the One World Trade Center in New York, U.S., December 23, 2022. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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By Gabriella Borter and Ahmed Aboulenein

(Reuters) -A deadly blizzard pummeled Buffalo, New York, on Christmas Day, trapping people in their cars, causing power outages and raising the death toll from a severe winter storm system that has swept the United States.

Twenty-eight people have died so far in weather-related incidents across the country, according to an NBC News tally. CNN reported a total of 26 deaths.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the death toll from the storm had risen from three to seven overnight in the Buffalo region in far western New York, where snow on Sunday brought total accumulation to nearly four feet (1.2 meters).

Some of the four reported dead on Sunday morning were found in cars and some in snow banks, Poloncarz said, adding that the death count might still rise.

“This is not the Christmas any of us hoped for nor expected, but try to have as merry a Christmas as possible today,” Poloncarz said on Twitter on Sunday. “My deepest condolences to the families who have lost loved ones.

Christina Klaffka, a 39-year-old North Buffalo resident, watched the shingles blow off her neighbor’s home and listened to her windows rattle from “hurricane-like winds.” She lost power along with her whole neighborhood on Saturday evening, and was still without electricity on Sunday morning.

“My TV kept flickering while I was trying to watch the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears game. I lost power shortly after the 3rd quarter,” she said.

Cars were trapped under 5-foot snow drifts in her neighborhood, Klaffka said, with more snow still forecast for Sunday night.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters on Sunday that she had been in touch with the White House and that the Biden administration would support the state’s request for a federal disaster declaration.

“This will go down in history as Buffalo’s most devastating storm. This one is for the ages and we’re still in the middle of it,” Hochul said.

The blizzard was a result of a powerful winter weather system that has caused frigid temperatures from the Northern Great Plains to the U.S.-Mexico border since mid-last week. The storm was moving east on Sunday, after knocking out power to millions late last week and causing flight cancellations during the busy holiday travel period.

More than 150,000 U.S. homes and businesses were without power on Sunday, a sharp drop from the 1.8 million that were powerless as of early Saturday, according to PowerOutage.us. In Buffalo, 16% of residents had no electricity on Sunday, officials said.

Two days of white-out conditions in western New York had made rescue efforts nearly impossible at times, officials said. A National Guard team dispatched from Niagara Falls to help in Buffalo got stuck on Friday trying to reach equipment at the Buffalo Armory.

“We had to dig them out … in order for them to be able to get to the Buffalo Armory,” Hochul told reporters on Sunday.

More than 1,600 flights in the United States were canceled as of midday on Sunday, according to flight tracker FlightAware, as weather further snarled holiday travel.

Christmas morning temperatures were still well below average across the central and eastern U.S., and below freezing even as far south as the Gulf Coast, National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist Rich Otto said.

DEADLY CAR TRAVEL

In Erie County, hundreds of motorists were stranded in their vehicles over the weekend, with the National Guard called in to help with rescues, Poloncarz said.

A countywide driving ban remained in effect on Sunday.

The Buffalo airport had recorded nearly four feet of snow by Sunday morning, the National Weather Service said. White-out conditions persisted south of Buffalo midday on Sunday, with snow falling 2-3 inches per hour.

“Another one to two feet in general before Monday morning in the Buffalo area is expected,” Otto said. “I guess you can say in some ways, the worst of it is over but there’s still some pretty significant snowfall that’s ongoing around the Buffalo region today.”

Officials in Kentucky confirmed there were at least three storm-related deaths in that state, while at least four people were dead and several injured in auto-related accidents in Ohio, where a 50-vehicle pileup shut down the Ohio Turnpike in both directions during a blizzard near Toledo on Friday.

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