The winter storm death toll has risen to 37 in Erie County, New York, as crews continue to clear roads and first responders check on people they couldn't reach days ago when the catastrophic weather system swept the nation, officials there said Wednesday.
At least 25 others across 11 US states also have been reported dead in the storm, which buried the city of Buffalo in nearly 52 inches of snow, trapping residents in western New York at home -- many without heat as the Christmas weekend blizzard took out power lines.
"It's a horrible storm with too many deaths," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said at a news conference as he praised first responders, without whom "more people would have died."
Now, authorities are going door-to-door to conduct wellness checks, Poloncarz said: An EMS task force is checking locations of emergency calls that authorities could not reach during the storm, while the National Guard will spend the next couple days checking every house in neighborhoods that lost power.
"We are fearful that there are individuals who may have perished living alone or people who were not doing well in an establishment, especially those that still don't have power," Poloncarz said.
Buffalo police continue to sift through 911 calls and requests for welfare checks from the early days of the storm, Commissioner Joseph A. Gramaglia said Wednesday, but they still have between 200 and 300 calls to review.
Crews continue to dig out roads across the Buffalo area as officials beg residents to adhere to a driving ban so they can coordinate deliveries of fuel to emergency crews and grocery supplies to markets.
A two-day effort that aims to clear at least one lane on every street for emergency responders remains hampered by hundreds of vehicles abandoned in the snow, hazardous driving conditions and snow-covered lanes, Poloncarz spokesperson Peter Anderson said Tuesday.
The county brought in 100 military police, plus New York State Police, to manage traffic control because too many people are ignoring the ban, Poloncarz said previously. "We still have unnecessary travel, and it is a dangerous situation," county Public Works Commissioner William Geary Jr. said Wednesday.
Meantime, Buffalo faces a small risk of flooding as rising temperatures begin to melt the massive amount of snow and 2 inches of rain is forecast through the weekend, the National Weather Service said.
At least one reported death in Erie County has been attributed to an EMS delay, Poloncarz told CNN on Tuesday. "Our emergency responders could not get to the person because of the snow," he said. "They were blocked, and by the time they got there it was too late."
Amid the frigid, whiteout conditions, "people ... got stranded in their vehicles and passed away in their cars. We have people that were walking during blizzard conditions and passed away on the street, passed away in snowbanks," Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said. "And we have people that were found that passed away in their homes."
Dozens of people rescued by National Guard
There were 580 New York National Guard soldiers and airmen on the ground Wednesday in the Buffalo area, according to the force's public affairs office.
They have two separate missions: Teams of four soldiers go door-to-door to see if residents have power, heat and food -- and distributing ready-to-eat meals, or MREs, and water as needed; and teams of two soldiers and two medical providers conduct wellness checks, spokesperson Eric Durr told CNN.
As of Tuesday, they had rescued at least 86 people "from hazardous situations," according to a news release, including a woman taken to a hospital just before giving birth.
Separately, a member of the 105th Military Police Company "learned from his mother that a pregnant woman he was close to had gone into labor," the release said.
"He went to her home," it said, "helped deliver the baby, then reported for duty."
This storm marked the first time the Buffalo Fire Department could not respond to emergency calls because of severe conditions, Poloncarz said, citing the agency's historian. Two-thirds of the equipment dispatched to help clear winter snow during the height of the storm also got stuck, he said.
Poloncarz was asked Wednesday about the timing of the driving ban, which went into effect Friday at 9:30 a.m. as the storm hit, and whether there had been discussion among officials about issuing such a ban earlier.
Officials started discussing a potential ban Thursday, Poloncarz said, but they initially believed the snow band wouldn't reach the Erie County until 10 a.m. the next morning. They opted to wait, in part, because officials wanted workers to be able to get home before temperatures dropped below freezing, he said.
On Friday morning, temperatures "dropped dramatically," going from rain to sleet to snow within five minutes around 8:40 a.m., he said. Whiteout conditions didn't occur until about 10 a.m., he noted, after the ban was issued.
"But we have to take a lot into consideration," Poloncarz said. "If anyone is to be blamed, you can blame me. I'm the one who has to make the final call on behalf of the county."
Nationwide death toll rises
In Erie County, 29 who died were in the city of Buffalo, while seven were located in the suburbs, Poloncarz said Wednesday, adding he did not know where one person was found. Multiple bodies remain unidentified, Poloncarz added.
He has asked that anyone with a missing family member to call local police to help with the ID process.
Among the storm's victims is Anndel Taylor, 22, whose family said she was found dead in Buffalo over the holiday weekend after getting trapped in her car by the blizzard.
After losing contact with her, the family posted her location to a private Facebook page related to the storm to ask for help, and a man called to say he had found her without a pulse, her sister said.
The winter storm's grim effects have been widespread, with at least 62 storm-related deaths reported across several states:
New York: In addition to the 37 deaths in Erie County, one fatal carbon monoxide poisoning was reported in Niagara County. The preliminary investigation indicates snow "covered the external furnace causing carbon monoxide to enter the residence," the Niagara County Sheriff's Office said in a news release Wednesday, identifying the victim as 27-year-old Timothy M. Murphy of Lockport.
Colorado: Police in Colorado Springs reported two deaths related to the cold since Thursday, with one man found near a building's power transformer, possibly seeking warmth, and another in a camp in an alleyway.
Kansas: Three people died in weather-related traffic accidents, the Highway Patrol said Friday.
Kentucky: Three people died, officials have said, including one involved in a vehicle crash in Montgomery County.
Missouri: One person died after a van slid off an icy road and into a frozen creek, Kansas City police said.
New Hampshire: A hiker was found dead in Franconia on Christmas morning, said Lt. James Kneeland, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
Ohio: Nine people died as a result of weather-related auto crashes, including four in a Saturday morning crash on Interstate 75 when a tractor-trailer crossed the median and collided with an SUV and a pickup, authorities said.
South Carolina: Two men -- including a 91-year-old who went outside on Christmas Day to fix a broken water pipe -- died due to the storm in Anderson County, the coroner's office there said. The other victim died on Christmas Eve after his home lost power.
Tennessee: The Department of Health on Friday confirmed one storm-related fatality.
Vermont: One woman in Castleton died after a tree fell on her home, according to the police chief.
Wisconsin: The State Patrol on Thursday reported one fatal crash due to winter weather.
9 arrested for alleged looting
With flooding possible in Buffalo, crews are focused on clearing key snowbanks, officials said. Still, "it should take around an inch of rain from this system before flooding becomes a concern," the weather service said.
City leaders are working with the National Weather Service "not only to reflect back on what happened this past week but also what potentially could come," Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services' Daniel Neaverth said.
All major highways across Western New York, including New York State Thruway, had reopened by Tuesday -- "a sign that we are finally turning the corner on this once-in-a-generation storm," Gov. Kathy Hochul said.
Buffalo got another 1.6 inches of snow on Tuesday, bringing the total since Friday to 51.9 inches and the December total to 64.7 inches, the weather service said. Overall, Buffalo has gotten 101.6 inches this winter season, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said.
Conditions are improving and the lake-effect snowfall has finally stopped, he noted. Warm temperatures are forecast for at least the next week, with Buffalo due for highs in the upper 30s on Wednesday and the 40s through the weekend.
Officials also have responded to a few reports of looting. Nine people had been arrested in Buffalo as of Wednesday in connection with suspected winter storm looting, according to a tweet from the Buffalo Police Department.
"It is horrible that while residents of our community have died in this storm that people are out looting," the mayor said, but noted, "This is a minority of individuals."
Erie County Sheriff John Garcia echoed that sentiment Wednesday, stressing, "Nine out of 10 stories" would be about citizens stepping up to help one another.
"Folks in Erie County, we're good people," he said. "We've done a great job. We should be very proud of what accomplishments we made."
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