Brutal winter storm conditions that continued to batter most of the United States brought one of the cities most accustomed to snow — Buffalo — to a standstill overnight and into Saturday, with hundreds of people stuck in vehicles in the frigid cold and drifting snow, and no way for rescue workers to reach them.
Two people died in separate incidents at their homes and a third died on the street when first responders could not get to them. There was no emergency service for much of the area, said Mark C. Poloncarz, county executive for Erie County, which includes Buffalo. A physician was coaching over the phone as a woman delivered her sister’s baby at home. First responders from a hospital could not get to an infant who needed help a few blocks away. People were stranded for the night in restaurants as well as their homes, he said.
“This was a very, very bad night in our community,” Poloncarz said during a Saturday morning briefing. “Thankfully, the sun is up.”
“This may turn out to be the worst storm in our community’s history, surpassing the famed blizzard of ’77 for its ferocity,” he added.
PJM, a power grid operator that serves 65 million customers across 13 states from Illinois to Virginia, as well as D.C., urged consumers to conserve energy through Christmas morning because of severe demand.
Lake-effect snowfall downwind of the Great Lakes will continue into Sunday. Still, Christmas Day brings the prospect of relief from the worst of the mammoth storm, even though biting cold will remain for another day.
Brian Hurley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said in an interview late Saturday afternoon that the storm had passed from the United States and was along the Quebec and Ontario border near St. James Bay.
“On Christmas Day, we’ll still be cold, but we start warming up,” Hurley said.
Snarled air travel was improving. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on Twitter that about 20 percent of Friday’s flights, about 6,000 in all, were canceled. Air travel was slowly returning, but he urged patience. More than 3,300 flights were canceled in the U.S. on Saturday, according to FlightAware.
In Buffalo, though, thousands were expected to be without power or heat overnight into Sunday. AccuWeather meteorologist Jake Sojda predicted that Buffalo would get 4 to 6 feet of snow by Sunday, coupled with wind gusts approaching hurricane force of 74 miles per hour or more.
Erie County said Saturday that emergency response was not available in about two-thirds of the blizzard-affected area. Emergency vehicles themselves were stuck in the snow. “It’s not something we’re proud of,” Poloncarz said.
He warned people not to call 911 or an emergency storm number unless they had life-threatening crises. Abandoned vehicles were causing additional problems, and there were concerns that snow-clogged exhaust vents were causing carbon monoxide or natural gas exhaust to back up into homes.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) ordered the National Guard to respond, and units were on their way to the worst-hit parts of the region. She and another official said numerous rescues were made overnight around the Buffalo area, in some cases with snowplows plucking stranded motorists from their cars and taking them to warming centers.
Buffalo Niagara International Airport will be closed through Monday morning, Hochul said, and she warned people who hoped to travel to Buffalo for Christmas not to attempt to drive, either.
Hochul said water poured into the streets of Far Rockaway and other bayside sections of Queens, then froze as rains departed and temperatures plunged, creating ice hazards. Nevertheless, New York City airports were open, and trains and subways were running, Hochul said.
She said during a briefing Saturday that the “real feel” temperature was not above zero anywhere in the state. The storm in western New York “may go down as one of the worst in history,” the governor said, attributing it to the effects of climate change.
While Buffalo may have seen the storm’s worst, few parts of the country were unaffected by the cold, ice, snow and winds that have barreled across the nation over the past several days. As of Saturday afternoon, officials across the U.S. had confirmed 16 storm-related deaths.
Areas in the South and Southeast, stretching from Texas to central Florida, were under a hard-freeze warning Saturday night into Sunday. Rain and freezing rain are in the forecast for Sunday for the Pacific Northwest, including parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Below-zero wind chills will continue for much of the Central and Northeastern U.S.
Power was knocked out for at least 1.5 million people on Friday, and temperatures plummeted, sometimes at record-breaking speeds. Duke Energy said that high energy demand from the frigid temperatures led to temporary power outages for nearly 340,000 people in the Carolinas on Christmas Eve.
Power was slowly being restored around the country, with about 335,000 without power as of 9 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday, according to PowerOutage.us.
FedEx said on Saturday that the severe weather is causing disruptions to its hubs in Memphis and Indianapolis and that delays could be expected for deliveries through Monday.
The storm that the National Weather Service described as “once in a generation” began Thursday and is expected to last through Christmas weekend, ultimately carving a 2,000-mile path across much of the country. The danger zone extended from Canada to Mexico and from Washington state to Florida.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who said his home had been without power since Friday night, told CNN that 65 stranded motorists had been rescued and another 200 had been reported. With many emergency vehicles unable to reach snowed-in areas, the city has partnered with a snowmobile club to facilitate rescues.
“We’ve had police officers and four-wheel-drive vehicles get stuck,” Brown said. “Firetrucks get stuck. In some cases, we’ve seen plows get stuck.”
With trees and power lines down and snow clogging many streets, it has been difficult for utility crews to restore power to the more than 20,000 homes without it, the mayor said. Among those needing assistance are people who rely on ventilators and oxygen.
The Buffalo News reported that the mother of a 1-year-old who needs a ventilator spent the night operating the machine manually to keep her child alive. The newspaper reported that emergency vehicles could not reach the woman because of the storm and that officials were trying to get a snowmobile to her apartment.
In Michigan, a Detroit television station reported that an 82-year-old woman was found dead outside her Bath Township assisted-living facility on Friday morning. Four people were dead after a 46-car pileup on the Ohio Turnpike on Friday, authorities said.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a tribal leader reported that people were trapped by ice and 30 inches of snow, burning clothes for heat because firewood deliveries could not get through.
The conditions “pose an imminent threat to tribal government operations, to public safety and the health of tribal members who currently do not have access to medical care, such as dialysis, ambulance service for crisis intervention medical care,” Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out wrote in an email.
In Kentucky, swirling winds and plummeting temperatures caused several crashes that resulted in backups as long as 14 miles on Highway 127. The icy conditions sent dozens of cars careening, and at least one tractor-trailer jackknifed, as slowdowns and road closures spread across the state.
In the wake of the crashes, only one southbound lane was open on Interstate 71, where state officials reported that hundreds of travelers were stranded over a six-mile stretch. The state said in a Twitter post that emergency officials were working “to get them off the road and into warmth.”
“I know that was tough for a lot of folks, but we did wellness checks on every single vehicle on I-71 in that backup,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said during a news conference Saturday morning. “No tragedies or serious medical injuries. Certainly had to help a lot of people. I know a lot of people were scared. It was a major tractor-trailer jackknife that took a significant amount of time to clear.”
Beshear said there were 43,000 power outages, and the state asked residents to reduce their electricity usage to minimize the potential for blackouts. The governor issued an executive order lowering the speed limit in certain areas to 45 mph and urged people to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary.
As temperatures gradually rose, the outlook brightened. State officials said Saturday morning that roads were being cleared, and Emergency Management Director Jeremy Slinker said he was “hoping to turn the corner today.”
Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, Jason Samenow, Danielle Paquette, Emmanuel Felton and researcher Cate Brown contributed to this report.