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‘Once-in-a-generation’ US winter storm claims 34 lives as travel warnings remain in place

Temperatures remain below freezing in the northwest but the bomb cyclone that enveloped the United States over the Christmas weekend has started to subside

US winter storm Elliot
A man shovels snow from the driveway of his house in Buffalo on Sunday.Bridget Haslinger (AP)

The northwestern United States awoke on Monday to temperatures that remained below zero but the Arctic front that blanketed more than half of the country in snow and ice during the Christmas weekend has begun to subside. At least 34 deaths have been reported, due mostly to traffic accidents caused by the bad weather or people becoming trapped in their cars. More than 1.6 million homes were left without electricity and festive holiday travelers were grounded across the country by thousands of flight cancelations as a rare bomb cyclone battered the US in a weather event described as “once-in-a-generation” by the National Weather Service (NWS).

Although the Arctic front is weakening as it moves eastward, the NWS issued a warning that it remains “extremely hazardous to travel in these conditions” in the northwestern United States.

Vehicles are left stranded on the road following the winter storm that hit the Buffalo region in Amherst, New York, US, December 25, 2022.
Vehicles are left stranded on the road following the winter storm that hit the Buffalo region in Amherst, New York, US, December 25, 2022. BRENDAN MCDERMID (REUTERS)

The deep freeze from the deadly storm will continue into the week as people in western New York deal with massive snow drifts. The Arctic blast has killed at least 34 people across the US and is expected to claim more lives after trapping some residents inside houses and knocking out power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses.

The extreme weather stretched from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. About 60% of the US population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians.

The NWS said Sunday the frigid arctic air “enveloping much of the eastern half of the US will be slow to moderate.”

That’s especially unwelcome news for Buffalo, which saw hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions that paralyzed emergency response efforts.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said almost every fire truck in the city was stranded Saturday and implored people Sunday to respect an ongoing driving ban in the region. Officials said the airport would be shut through Tuesday morning. The NWS said the snow total at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport stood at 43 inches (109 centimeters) at 7 am Sunday.

Mist rises from Chicago and Lake Michigan at sunrise on December 23, 2022, where temperatures reached -6F (-21C), ahead of the Christmas Holiday.
Mist rises from Chicago and Lake Michigan at sunrise on December 23, 2022, where temperatures reached -6F (-21C), ahead of the Christmas Holiday.KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI (AFP)

With snow swirling down untouched and impassable streets, forecasters warned an additional one to two feet (30 to 60 centimeters) of snow was possible in some areas through early Monday morning amid wind gusts of 40 mph (64 kph). Police said Sunday evening that there were two “isolated” instances of looting during the storm.

Two people died in their suburban Cheektowaga, New York, homes Friday when emergency crews could not reach them in time to treat their medical conditions. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said 10 more people died there during the storm, including six in Buffalo, and warned there may be more dead.

“Some were found in cars, some were found on the street in snowbanks,” Poloncarz said. “We know there are people who have been stuck in cars for more than two days.”

Freezing conditions and power outages had Buffalonians scrambling to get to anywhere with heat amid what Hochul called the longest sustained blizzard conditions ever in the city.

The storm knocked out power in communities from Maine to Seattle. But heat and lights were steadily being restored across the US. According to poweroutage.us, less than 200,000 customers were without power Sunday at 3 pm EDT – down from a peak of 1.7 million.

High winds and snow covering the streets and vehicles in Buffalo, NY on Sunday, December 25, 2022.
High winds and snow covering the streets and vehicles in Buffalo, NY on Sunday, December 25, 2022. AP

Concerns about rolling blackouts across eastern states subsided Sunday after PJM Interconnection said its utilities could meet the day’s peak electricity demand. The mid-Atlantic grid operator had called for its 65 million consumers to conserve energy amid the freeze Saturday.

Storm-related deaths were reported in recent days all over the country: 12 in Erie County, New York, ranging in age from 26 to 93 years old, and another in Niagara County where a 27-year-old man was overcome by carbon monoxide after snow blocked his furnace; 10 in Ohio, including an electrocuted utility worker and those killed in multiple car crashes; six motorists killed in crashes in Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky; a Vermont woman struck by a falling branch; an apparently homeless man found amid Colorado’s subzero temperatures; and a woman who fell through Wisconsin river ice.

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