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Historic polar storm in US leaves trail of death and destruction

At least 28 fatalities were reported in and around Buffalo, NY, which was buried in 43 inches of snow. Hundreds of people remained trapped in homes and vehicles

Polar storm in US Elliot
A man walks through the front yard of a house completely covered in ice floes in Buffalo, New York, on Monday.Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The storm that walloped much of the United States is now blamed for at least 49 deaths, with rescue and recovery efforts still continuing. The dead have been found in their cars, homes and in snowbanks. Some died while shoveling snow. Rescue teams were blinded by blizzards, power lines went down and air travel was in chaos.

The effects of the polar front that has been crossing North America since Thursday have not abated. At least 28 fatalities were recorded in and around Buffalo, New York, which saw up to 43 inches (109 cm) of snow and appears to have become the focal point of the worst winter storm in this part of the country since the extreme cold snap of 1977 that claimed nearly 30 lives.

A Buffalo resident tries to shovel snow this Monday, December 26.
A Buffalo resident tries to shovel snow this Monday, December 26.Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The death toll is expected to rise in the coming hours and days, as mountains of snow and ice are removed. Hundreds of members of the National Guard have joined local and state firefighters and police teams to locate survivors.

The cold weather will continue throughout the week, according to the National Weather Service, before slowly receding. Up to nine more inches of snow (23 cm) could fall in some areas of western New York through Tuesday, the NWS said.

“This is not the end yet,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, calling the blizzard “the worst storm probably in our lifetime,” even for an area accustomed to punishing snow.

A house covered in ice floes in Buffalo, New York state.
A house covered in ice floes in Buffalo, New York state.Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The return to normality will be slow. New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Sunday issued a reminder about the ban on driving in the region. President Joe Biden said his prayers were with the victims’ families, and offered federal assistance Monday to the hard-hit state.

The cold wave, of such intensity that it only occurs once in a generation according to the NWS, has also put the spotlight on ageing infrastructure such as interstate connections to the electricity grid. Six refineries, including some of the most important in the country, had to temporarily interrupt activity on Friday, according to the Oil Price Information Service, while thousands of homes were still without power on Monday. The country’s main electricity company asked customers on Saturday to turn down their thermostats as much as possible to conserve energy and avoid using electric stoves and other high-consumption appliances.

Ashton Robinson Cook, a meteorologist with the NWS, said the bomb cyclone – when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm – has weakened. It developed near the Great Lakes, stirring up blizzard conditions including heavy winds and snow.

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