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Buffalo death toll rises, making snow storm deadliest in more than 4 decades

Claire ThorntonCady StantonChristal Hayesn USA TODAY

More snow fell in Buffalo on Tuesday after a historic and brutal winter storm buried the region and left deaths mounting as the blizzard became the region's deadliest storm in more than four decades.

Already overwhelmed with a historic death toll, widespread power outages, and a driving ban that's being enforced by military police, western New York saw another inch of snow, the National Weather Service said.

“This is not the end yet,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, calling the blizzard “the worst storm probably in our lifetime.”

The storm system, which began before Christmas, pounded Buffalo with more than 50 inches of snow in recent days. While snow buried the city, conditions went from bad to worse with frigid temperatures and extreme winds — with gusts measured stronger than 70 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Poloncarz confirmed the storm-related death toll in the county rose to 31 Tuesday evening, with the dead being found in cars, homes, and snowbanks. The toll surpassed the number of deaths seen during the historic Blizzard of 1977 — remembered as the worst storm in the area's history after killing 29 people in an area known for harsh winter weather.

A driving ban remained in effect for the city as of Tuesday, and National Guard military police were sent to manage traffic because many residents are defying the ban, Poloncarz said. Crews were working to clear roads that are still blocked to create pathways for emergency vehicles.

“People just are ignoring the driving ban. I don’t know what to say at this point," Poloncarz said. "I'm begging: Stay home."

Conditions across the country weren't much better with fierce winter conditions trapping people in homes from Maine to Washington state and causing mass flight cancellations, with a mounting death toll across the US of more than 50.

Storm surpasses death toll in 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 1977 — widely regarded as the region's worst storm in recent history.

The blizzard in January 1977 killed 29 people over four days, including 12 who were found frozen in stranded cars, The Associated Press reported.

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

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

"[The 1977] storm is the benchmark storm for the Buffalo area," Brian Thompson, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, told USA TODAY. "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.

"You don't think these winter storms can kill so many people but they're just as deadly," Thompson added.

'The worst could be behind them': A thaw may be coming Wednesday

Some relief is in sight: On Wednesday, a warm front is expected to move across north-central New York, raising temperatures above freezing, forecasters say.

The warming will mark the beginning of the end of the miserable icy conditions across western New York, Thompson. Snow isn't in the immediate forecast and temperatures are expected to rise, staying in the 40s throughout next week.

"It looks like the worst could be behind them," Thompson said.

As temperatures rise, forecasters and local officials have noted a possible flood threat with the combination of melting snow and possible rain. Thompson said minor flooding was possible but temperatures in the 40s throughout next week would allow for a "slow burn" of the more than 50 inches of snow that fell the last four days. He added conditions would remain mostly dry, though some showers over the weekend could lead to minor isolated flooding.

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

"It's going to be a drastic switch, which is good and I'd guess welcome," he said.

Flight cancellations mount, Biden vows to hold airlines 'accountable'

More than 3,000 flights were canceled within, into or out of the U.S. for Tuesday as of about 8 a.m. Eastern time, according to FlightAware.

Flight cancellations by multiple airlines because of the storm have left thousands of travelers stranded at airports across the country.

President Joe Biden said his administration would hold airlines accountable for the mass cancellations and directed travelers to the Department of Transportation to see if they were eligible for compensation. The Department of Transportation said it would examine Southwest Airlines' cancellations in particular, which accounted for the majority of disruptions.

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

"That's going to be something to watch out for as the week progresses," he said. "This time around, we won't have to deal with the snow but the fog could be an issue for those that are traveling.

Storm and record cold take toll across much of the nation

The storm and record cold were felt across much of the nation over the weekend, knocking out power to several hundred thousands of homes and businesses, canceling thousands of flights and leading to a host of other problems.

Major cities across the South have experienced water problems because of the storms, including Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta and Charleston, South Carolina. Much of Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi, remain under a boil-water advisory because of broken water mains, a loss in system pressure and burst pipes in some areas. In Ohio, officials assessed water damage in the Statehouse after a pipe burst amid the freezing weather.

On the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s reservation in South Dakota, snowmobiles were being dispatched Tuesday to reach residents after food boxes were delivered by helicopter and trucks over the weekend, the tribe said.

Even Florida saw freezing temperatures over the weekend, dropping as low as 27 degrees in central Florida.

At least 50 deaths nationwide are blamed on the storm, including in car accidents, from cardiac events while shoveling snow and at least one death from carbon monoxide poisoning inside a home.

Buffalo sees looters during unprecedented storm

Authorities made several arrests amid looting in Buffalo during the storm, local media reported. Social media was flooded with photos and video showing people inside stores with broken windows in Erie County.

One video showed shelves mostly bare in several dollar stores in the area with food and clothing strewn wildly on the floor. Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia told WIVB News 4 officers made several arrests and helped at least one store get boarded up after vandals broke in.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown called the looters "absolutely reprehensible."

"I don’t know how these people can even live with themselves, how they can look at themselves in the mirror," Brown said. "They are the lowest of the low."

While the storm and its toll on western New York was unprecedented for residents, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul warned the state and the country should expect and be prepared for more of this kind of weather.

"Historic storms are no longer historic to us," she said Monday. "That's become a way of life in our state and that's a result of climate change."

Homeless man dies in frigid Louisiana trying to get back to family

A 57-year-old homeless man, who died from cold weather exposure Christmas day, was trying to travel from Louisiana to Tennessee to get to family members, officials said.

Charles Wilson Ligon Jr. was found dead by hunters in southern Mississippi Monday. Ligon was dressed in a light jacket and had money and a cellphone, The Times-Picayune reported.

“We were able to notify next of kin, and it was evident that the family was trying to work with him to get him back to Tennessee. But he didn’t have the means of getting a bus ticket or getting money wired to him,” Pearl River County Coroner Derek Turnage told the Sun Herald of Biloxi. “He didn’t have a current ID, which was the reason why he could not get those things done. The family was struggling to get him there.”

Ligon left Slidell, Louisiana, in mid-December without a vehicle and was living in the woods during the time of his death, Turnage said.

What is lake-effect snow?

Lake-effect snow, which can last for only a few minutes to several days, develops from narrow bands of clouds that form when cold, dry arctic air passes over a large, relatively mild lake.

Buffalo, which is right next to Lake Erie, ranks among the snowiest big cities as a result.

During this week's storm, the air mass over Lake Erie was "extremely cold" over the relatively warm waters of the lake, with winds that set up a snow band dumping intense snow for days, according to Dan Pydynowski, senior meteorologist at Accuweather.

"Both Lake Erie and Ontario just produced a very intense lake-effect snow," he said. "Not only are you dealing with heavy snow, you're dealing with blizzard conditions. ... All those factors combined to make a very intense outbreak that's finally just letting up now."

Contributing: The Associated Press; Rachel Wegner, Nashville Tennessean

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