Buffalo death toll rises to 34; temps to warm

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The worst of the historic winter storm is likely behind western New York as temperatures rose Wednesday, a trend meteorologists say was expected to spread across large swaths of the U.S.

But community members were still reeling from the storm’s devastating impacts this week. The death toll in Erie County, which contains Buffalo – the area hardest hit in the storm – rose to 34 on Wednesday, officials confirmed in a morning update.

Along with burying the city with more than 50 inches of snow since Christmas Eve, the storm carried frigid temperatures and extreme winds – with gusts measured stronger than 70 mph at times, according to the National Weather Service. 

Those conditions were expected to dissipate Wednesday as temperatures rise into the 40s and 50s throughout the week. Some rain was in the forecast, which along with melted snow, could bring possible flooding.

“It looks like the worst could be behind them,” Brian Thompson, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, told USA TODAY.

Conditions across the U.S. were also expected to warm, with some areas, including the Midwest, seeing temperatures 10 to 20 degrees above average, Thompson said. 

Meanwhile in the West, the National Weather Service said Wednesday morning that an active and powerful wet system is expected to hit the Western half of the country over the next few days – with forecasts of moderate to heavy rain, mountain snow, and potential flood risks.

More weather news from USA TODAY:

Southwest cancels more flights

Southwest Airlines travelers were still struggling Wednesday with canceled flights and lost luggage. 

More than 2,500 Southwest flights are canceled Wednesday, after roughly 5,600 cancellations across Monday and Tuesday, according to FlightAware, which tracks flight status in real time. FlightAware is already reporting more than 2,300 Southwest cancellations for Thursday. 

“We are past the point where (Southwest) could say this is a weather-driven issue,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told Good Morning America on Wednesday, noting that, while the rest of the aviation system was down to a rate of about 4% of flights being canceled Wednesday morning, Southwest saw a rate higher than 60%.

“What this indicates is a system failure,” Buttigieg told GMA. “They need to make sure these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they’re provided adequate compensation, not just for the flight itself… but also things like hotels, like ground transportation (and) meals – because this is the airline’s responsibility.”

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden said his administration would hold airlines accountable for the mass cancellations. The Department of Transportation said it would examine Southwest Airlines’ cancellations.

Bags at Denver International Airport sit awaiting reunification with their owners on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022.

Airlines could see further problems later in the week as temperatures rise east of the Rocky Mountains and fog becomes a larger factor.

WHAT TRAVELERS SHOULD KNOW:Nearly 2/3 of Southwest flights canceled

FLIGHTS CANCELED:1,000 Southwest flyers sleep overnight at Denver airport 

Joint inquiry into storm’s widespread power outages

The winter storm that rattled much of the U.S. over the holiday weekend also left millions in the dark, with widespread power outages reported across the country.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, North American Electric Reliability Corporation and regional entities announced Wednesday that they would open a joint inquiry “into the operations of the bulk power system during the extreme winter weather conditions that occurred” during the winter storm. 

While most of the outages were from the weather’s impact on local utilities’ electric distribution facilities, the NERC noted that some utilities initiated rolling blackouts in some parts of the southeast, including Tennessee and North Carolina. In other regions, the bulk power system was also “significantly stressed.”

The winter storm’s effects “demonstrate yet again that our bulk power system is critical to public safety and health,” FERC chairman Rich Glick said in a statement. “The joint inquiry with NERC we are announcing today will allow us to dig deeper into exactly what happened so we can further protect the reliability of the grid.”

Death toll increases as National Guard goes door to door

The death toll in Erie County rose to 34 on Wednesday, officials confirmed in a morning update. Three of the people who died remain unidentified. 

The county is facing the possibility of finding more victims in the coming days. On Wednesday, the National Guard was going door to door in parts of Buffalo and its suburbs to check on people who had lost power. 

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said that officials are “fearful that there are (more) individuals who may have perished” during the storm.

“I offer my deepest condolences and sympathies to the individuals who’ve lost loved ones,” Poloncarz said Wednesday. “I understand that every time that the Christmas season comes along people are going to remember the storm and the death of their loved one. And the stories are just heartbreaking. Just heartbreaking.”

Poloncarz pointed to the death of a man who went out into the storm “to get food and provisions for his pregnant wife who was about to give birth … (but) didn’t make it back home.” The Buffalo News reported that the man, identified as Abdul Sharifu, 26, was found dead outside on Saturday.

Sharifu’s cousin, Ali Sharifu, told the outlet that Abdul Sharifu was working toward buying a home for his family and “was so excited to become a father.”

National guard members check on residents, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, in Buffalo N.Y., following a winter storm. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Driving ban remains in effect in Buffalo

Buffalo’s driving ban remained in effect Wednesday to keep people off snow-choked roads, Poloncarz confirmed on Twitter and in the county’s Wednesday morning update. The rest of Erie County was under a driving advisory.

State and military police were sent Tuesday to help enforce the ban on driving. Although some suburban roads and most major highways in the area reopened, Poloncarz said Tuesday that police would be stationed at entrances to Buffalo and at major intersections because some drivers were disregarding the ban.

A front end loader dump snow into a dump truck as crews clear large amounts of snow, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, in Buffalo N.Y., days after a winter storm passed through. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Heavy rain, snow slams West Coast; thousands without power

Atmospheric rivers were drenching the West Coast and the Rockies with heavy rain, winds, and snow throughout the week, experts say, leaving 11 states in the West under weather alerts Wednesday.

The next seven days will see rainfall totals ranging from two to six inches in coastal areas out West, “with higher terrain expected to receive several feet of snow,” the National Weather Service’s Prediction Centerr said on Twitter.

The region, particularly parts of southern and central California, may also see some scattered flash floods, “with the greatest chances for rapid runoff and debris flows near recent burn scars,” the weather service said Wednesday morning.

‘A very wet system’:West Coast drenched by atmospheric rivers, raising flood risks  

Amid the active wet system moving through the West, thousands have experienced power outages. About 100,000 electric customers in Washington, Oregon, and California combined were in the dark early Wednesday, according to counts by PowerOutage.us. By the afternoon, outages in the three states dropped to closer to 70,000.

Storm surpasses death toll of 1977 Buffalo-area blizzard 

The growing death toll in the Buffalo area reached a grim milestone Tuesday after it surpassed the death toll in the Blizzard of January 1977 – widely regarded as the region’s worst storm in recent history that killed 29 people over four days, including 12 who were found frozen in stranded cars, The Associated Press reported.

On Wednesday, officials said the number of deaths increased from 31 to 34.

The storm had surprisingly little snowfall, only about 12 inches in Buffalo, but brought sustained, deadly cold temperatures into the area for weeks. Blizzard-condition winds lasted for nine consecutive hours, with zero visibility for 13 consecutive hours.

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Powerful winds instead blew loose snow from previous storms from frozen Lake Erie onto land, creating huge snowdrifts and fully burying houses and cars.

The 1977 “storm is the benchmark storm for the Buffalo area,” Thompson said. “This storm certainly seems like it now has become the deadliest storm in the Buffalo area.” 

Thompson noted decades of blizzards across the U.S. that have left hundreds dead, including the 1993 Storm of the Century, which killed more than 300 people in more than a dozen states. It is regarded as the second-most costliest winter storm on record, according to federal weather records. 

Contributing: Cady Stanton and Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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