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 completed sifting through 911 calls going back to the early days of the storm, Commissioner Joseph A. Gramaglia said Wednesday. He told CNN’s Pamela Brown that it was a “tremendous” effort that also resulted in the recovery of a “substantial” number of bodies. The task included requests for welfare checks.
Gramaglia said he expects rising temperatures in the coming days will melt the snow and uncover more storm victims.
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.”
Crews continued to dig out roads across the Buffalo area as officials begged residents to stay off the road so they could coordinate deliveries of fuel to emergency crews and grocery supplies to markets.
Officials announced Wednesday evening they would lift a driving ban at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and replace it with a travel advisory.
And 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 were ignoring the ban, Poloncarz said previously.
3 deaths due to EMS delays
Three reported deaths in Erie County were attributed to EMS delays, Poloncarz said Wednesday. In one of those cases, emergency responders could not get to the person because of the snow, he told CNN a day earlier.
“They were blocked, and by the time they got there it was too late,” Poloncarz said.
One Buffalo EMT told CNN she was stuck in her ambulance for hours Friday after trying to respond to an emergency call during the snowstorm.
“The main reason we were getting stuck is because there were cars in the way,” said Joycelyn Benton, an advanced EMT at American Medical Response of Western New York. The city of Buffalo contracts with the provider for ambulance services, an Erie County spokesperson told CNN.
In pictures: Winter storm impacts the US
Benton said she thinks officials could have put out snow plows earlier, sent National Guard resources in earlier and instituted the travel ban earlier to keep cars off the street.
“Not being able to help people is horrible,” she told CNN. “Knowing we could be a block away from a call but we couldn’t get to it because of the weather was difficult.”
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 last 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.”
City faces criticism over cleanup; mayor says city working hard
Poloncarz, the county executive, on Wednesday criticized how Buffalo’s mayor has handled storm cleanup efforts, saying Brown has not been on daily coordination calls with other municipalities and that the city has been slow to reopen.
“I am a city resident myself, I live in the city of Buffalo, and it pains me to see the other 25 towns and two small cities opened in times when the city isn’t,” Poloncarz said, adding that the county should take over cleanup efforts so the city can fully reopen.
When asked about those remarks, the mayor dismissed the criticism, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday evening, “I’m not concerned about those comments, my concern is for the residents of the city of Buffalo.”
“I’ve just completed hours of touring neighborhoods throughout the city, watching the plowing operations,” Brown said, adding there were agencies from the city, county and state working in recovery efforts who have been doing a “great job working together, working around the clock.”
“We believe that by tonight, we’ll have 100% of streets opened up in the city of Buffalo and it’s my hope to be able to lift the … driving ban before the start of business tomorrow,” Brown added.
Other local leaders have urged a review of how the storm was handled.
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.”
Preparations for flooding
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.
But “it should take around an inch of rain from this system before flooding becomes a concern,” the weather service said.
In a news release on Wednesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced she directed state agencies to help support the affected communities with flood response resources.
Resources including generators, pumps and more than 700,000 sandbags were available for deployment from state stockpiles in Erie and Monroe counties, the release said.
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.
CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian, Kristina Sgueglia, Robert Shackelford, Sabrina Souza and Celina Tebor contributed to this report.