Twelve people have died after a freezing blizzard with high winds struck the Buffalo, New York, area in a storm that the state’s governor has described as “devastating.”
Some of those who died were found in cars and others were on the street, Mark Poloncarz, the executive of Erie County where Buffalo is located, said earlier Sunday.
By 5 p.m. the number of storm-related deaths was 12, Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a news conference.
“It is devastating. It is going to a war zone,” Hochul said after surveying the damage. “The vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking.”
Six of the dead were in Buffalo, the city said Sunday. A driving ban was in effect in Buffalo on Sunday. Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said police were asking those with snowmobiles to assist in search and recovery efforts.
Hochul said the scale of the storm will be worse than the famous blizzard of 1977 in its intensity and ferocity of the winds. That storm was blamed in 29 deaths, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center.
State police were involved in over 500 rescues, Hochul said, including helping the elderly get to hospitals and delivering a baby
Around 15,000 customers in Buffalo were without power, which may not be restored before Tuesday, Poloncarz said.
“Substations froze. They were snowed under. We had a report that one substation had an 18-foot drift onto it,” he said. “And when they got in the substation was frozen. They still don’t even know to the extent the damage that occurred in the substation.”
Much of Buffalo is impassable, Poloncarz said. He urged people from areas where conditions had improved not to travel to Buffalo to rescue family and friends.
Officials have rescued “hundreds and hundreds” of people, including by snowplows, as those were the only vehicles able to reach those stranded in cars, Hochul said.
“This will go down in history as the most devastating storm in Buffalo’s long, storied history of having battled many battles, many major storms,” she said on Sunday.
By around 10 a.m., about 43 inches of snow — or more than 3 1/2 feet — had fallen at Buffalo’s airport over the past 48 hours, according to the National Weather Service.
There was a period of hours when they could not send out emergency service crews or Department of Public Works crews, Poloncarz said. It’s believed to be the first time that Buffalo’s Fire Department was unable to respond to calls, he said.
“It was bad, is the best way to put it,” Poloncarz said. “It was as bad as anyone has ever seen it.”
Utility company National Grid had said that because of the “unprecedented severity” of the storm, some crews could not reach the areas where they were needed. The company had said Sunday that restoration work was being conducted around the clock.
Buffalo had been under blizzard warnings, but by Sunday afternoon it was under a winter storm warning until 4 a.m. Monday.
There could be 8 to 16 additional inches of snow in the region, which includes Buffalo, Batavia, Orchard Park and Springville, according to the National Weather Service. The most snow was expected for the “southtowns” and southwest Erie County.
Officials pleaded with people to stay home if they can, although county workers and other public servants were asked to help relieve their colleagues.
“I cannot overstate how dangerous the conditions still are,” Hochul said, adding, “Just hang in there one more day.”
The situation in Buffalo comes as most of the United States has been hammered by a major winter storm with dangerously low temperatures.
At least 35 people have died in weather-related incidents across the United States, according to an NBC count based on reports from officials.
Last month areas south of Buffalo, like Orchard Park, saw around 7 feet of snow. But Poloncarz said the situations do not compare.
He said he has been in contact with the Biden administration to initiate a disaster declaration.
“This is a major disaster. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “We’ve had other storms, the storms just four weeks ago that dumped 7 feet of snow on the southtowns,” he said using the regional term for cities in the southern part of Erie County. “They do not match up to this.”