Drivers make their way along a snowy highway in Louisville, Kentucky, which was hit by freezing temperatures on December 23, 2022
New York (AFP) - A relentless winter storm brought Christmas Day danger and misery to millions of Americans Sunday as intense snow and frigid cold gripped parts of the eastern United States, with weather-related deaths rising to at least 26.
A crisis situation was unfolding in Buffalo, in western New York, where a blizzard has left the city marooned, with emergency services unable to reach high impact areas.
The Buffalo storm is “a crisis of epic proportion” and “the worst of the worst,” said New York Governor Kathy Hochul, a native of Buffalo, where eight-foot (2.4-meter) snow drifts against front doors and power outages in freezing temperatures have made for life-threatening conditions.
More than 200,000 people across several eastern states woke up without power on Christmas morning and many more had their holiday travel plans upended, although the five-day-long storm featuring blizzard conditions and ferocious winds showed signs of easing.
Explainer showing the formation of a bomb cyclone: an intense storm with a low-pressure center which can cause blizzards, severe thunderstorms and heavy precipitation
The extreme weather sent wind chill temperatures in all 48 contiguous US states below freezing over the weekend, stranded holiday travelers with thousands of flights canceled and trapped residents in ice- and snow-encrusted homes.
Twenty-six weather-related deaths have been confirmed across eight states, with some US media reporting as many as 30 storm-linked fatalities in total, including four in Colorado who likely died of exposure and at least seven in western New York.
While large swathes of the country have begun shovelling out from the massive storm and temperatures in some locations were returning to seasonal normality, Buffalo remained in the grips of “a major disaster,” a senior official said Sunday.
“We do have seven confirmed deaths at this point as a result of the storm in Erie County. There may be more,” county executive Mark Poloncarz told reporters.
Ice adorns a fountain in Charleston, South Carolina, on December 24, 2022, as a deadly winter storm blanketed much of the United States with frigid temperatures, fierce winds and blinding snow
He described ferocious conditions, with hours-long whiteouts and bodies discovered in vehicles and under snow banks – and emergency personnel going “car to car” searching for more bodies or for trapped motorists.
The city’s international airport remains closed until Tuesday.
Governor Hochul deployed some 200 National Guard members to help with rescues in and around Buffalo.
“It is extreme, it is dangerous and deadly,” she told CNN, noting that even National Guard units were getting trapped and requiring rescue.
- ‘Conditions are just so bad’ -
The National Weather Service warned that blizzard conditions in western New York’s Great Lakes region caused by lake-effect snow was continuing Sunday, with “additional snow accumulations of 2 to 3 feet through tonight.”
One couple in Buffalo, across the border from Canada, told AFP Saturday that with the roads completely impassible, they would not be making a 10-minute drive to see their family for Christmas.
Antonio Smothers jump-starts his vehicle as a major winter storm moves through Nashville, Tennessee on December 23, 2022
“It’s tough because the conditions are just so bad… a lot of fire departments aren’t even sending out trucks for calls,” said 40-year-old Rebecca Bortolin.
A broader travel nightmare was in full effect for millions.
The storm, one of the fiercest in decades, forced the cancellation of more than 1,700 US flights on Sunday, in addition to some 3,500 scrapped Saturday and nearly 6,000 Friday, according to tracking website Flightaware.com.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted Saturday that “the most extreme disruptions are behind us as airline and airport operations gradually recover.”
But travelers remained stranded or delayed at airports including in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit and New York.
Road ice and white-out conditions also led to the temporary closure of some of the nation’s busiest transport routes, including the cross-country Interstate 70.
A snowplow clears a road on December 23, 2022, in London, Ontario in Canada during the severe winter storm that battered North America ahead of Christmas day
Drivers were being warned not to take to the roads – even as the nation reached what is usually its busiest time of year for travel.
The extreme weather has severely taxed electricity grids, with multiple power providers urging millions of people to reduce usage to minimize rolling blackouts in places like North Carolina and Tennessee.
At one point on Saturday, nearly 1.7 million customers were without electricity in the biting cold, according to tracker poweroutage.us.
The figure dropped substantially by Sunday, although some 180,000 customers in eastern states still lacked power.
In Canada, hundreds of thousands were left without power in Ontario and Quebec, many flights were canceled in major cities and train passenger service between Toronto and Ottawa was suspended.