US digs out from monster storm as death toll passes 50

BUFFALO, United States (AFP) — The monster storm
that killed dozens in the United States over the Christmas weekend continued to inflict misery on New York state and air travellers nationwide Tuesday, as stories emerged of families trapped for days during the “blizzard of the century”.

The number of deaths attributed to the winter storm — most of them in road accidents — rose to at least 50 after officials confirmed another fatality in western New York’s Erie County, the epicentre of the crisis.

“Unfortunately, police expects that number to rise,” tweeted Byron Brown, mayor of the lakeside county’s biggest city Buffalo — which has been paralysed for five days by chest-deep snow banks and power outages, and where more snowfall was forecast on Tuesday.

Kathy Hochul, New York state’s governor and a Buffalo native, described the storm aftermath as resembling “a war zone”.

“Certainly it is the blizzard of the century,” Hochul told reporters Monday.

As temperatures plummeted, commuters and some residents fleeing their freezing homes became trapped on highways, unable to be rescued.

The family of one 22-year-old Buffalo resident, Anndel Taylor, said she died in her car after getting stuck on her way home from work.

A video sent by Taylor and posted by her sister shows her vehicle covered up to its windows in snow.

Emergency responders, who themselves became stuck attempting to rescue her, found her dead 18 hours later, possibly due to carbon monoxide poisoning, her family in North Carolina told local TV station WSOC-TV.

One father described being trapped in his vehicle on the streets of Buffalo with his four young children for 11 hours before being rescued, according to The New York Times.

Zila Santiago, 30, said he kept his engine running to provide some warmth and fed his children some juice found in his trunk.

They were finally rescued at dawn by a passing snowplough.

The perfect storm of fierce snow squalls, howling wind and sub-zero temperatures forced the cancellation of almost 20,000 US flights in recent days, including nearly 4,700 on Tuesday, according to tracking site Flightaware.com.

Most of the cancellations on Tuesday were at Southwest Airlines, which pulled over 60 percent of its flights due to cascading logistics issues related to its particular route network, earning it a rebuke from the US government.

The Department of Transportation tweeted that it was “concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations” and would examine if the company is “complying with its customer service plan”.

US President Joe Biden on Monday approved an emergency declaration for New York state, freeing up funds to help it recover from the disaster.

Buffalo’s international airport remains closed until Wednesday morning and a driving ban remained in effect for the city, where thousands were still without power.

“You can absolutely go out and walk to check on neighbours, go to open stores, etc. But do not drive,” warned the county executive, Mark Poloncarz, in a tweet.

Long-time Buffalo resident Bill Sherlock told AFP that his home had received about four feet of snow, but that he was lucky to have had running electricity and a good stock of food through the whole weekend.

Those less fortunate “probably had the worst Christmas of their lives”, said the 38-year-old attorney — mindful that some homes in his neighbourhood have had no power since Friday.

Sherlock spent three hours digging out his driveway, and may wait another day before venturing further afield for the first time in nearly a week: “We’re not going anywhere unless we have to.”

The National Weather Service forecasted isolated areas of snow in western New York on Tuesday, but a thaw was in sight.

A respite of warmer temperatures around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) were forecast by the weekend, although officials warned that melting snow could result in minor flooding.

The extreme weather over the weekend sent temperatures to below freezing in all mainland US states, including in Texas communities along the Mexico border where some newly arriving migrants have struggled to find shelter.

At one point on Saturday, nearly 1.7 million customers were without electricity in the biting cold, according to tracker poweroutage.us.

Road ice and whiteout conditions also led to the temporary closure of some of the nation’s busiest transport routes, including part of the cross-country Interstate 70 highway.

Governor Hochul tweeted Tuesday that the reopening of several key highways in New York, as well as border crossings into Canada, were “a sign that we are finally turning the corner on this once-in-a-generation storm”.

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