As authorities in Buffalo, New York, continue following up on some of the hundreds of calls for help made during and since the historic weekend blizzard – a “grueling, gruesome task” that’s revealed people dead in cars and snowbanks – officials are facing tough questions about their handling of storm preparations and the disaster response.
The death toll in Erie County, New York, has climbed to 39, officials there said, while at least 25 others died across 11 US states as the winter storm plowed across most of the country, with most killed in traffic wrecks or by the bitter cold.
In hardest-hit Buffalo, a six-day driving ban lifted early Thursday as City Hall, grocery stores and other key services reopened. Most streets were passable by Wednesday evening after hundreds of pieces of equipment plowed and hauled snow that day, Mayor Byron Brown said.
“We still have a ways to go, but we have come a long way in just a couple of days,” he said.
Still, residents are bracing for what could be another weather headache: possible “minor/nuisance” flooding as the enormous volume of snow melts and rain is forecast Saturday, the National Weather Service said.
While officials are prepared for flooding with pumps and sandbags on standby, weather advisories suggest “flooding will be minimal,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said.
Temperatures are set to rise to about 50 degrees this week, but there is no longer an expectation of significant ice jams and the county has ample supplies and personnel to face flooding, its emergency services chief said.
The city continues to dig out and open, the mayor said, adding main roads are 100% open and secondary roads each have one lane open.
Rising temperatures in New York’s second-most populous city also may uncover more storm victims, with officers out again Thursday to search places in Buffalo where bodies were reported but not found, police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said. New York National Guard teams also are canvassing the city.
“It’s a grueling, gruesome task that they had to do,” Gramaglia said, noting his force has finished following up on some 1,100 backlogged welfare check and 911 calls. “They recovered a substantial amount of bodies, and it’s terrible.”
“The stories are heartbreaking, just heartbreaking,” Poloncarz said. Among the dead are a senior home worker, a soon-to-be new dad and a grandmother whose body a stranger moved “so that she wouldn’t get snowed on anymore.”
Amid those and other devastating accounts, questions swelled Wednesday about the timing of Erie County’s driving ban – enacted at 9:30 a.m. Friday – and whether officials had discussed issuing it earlier.
Leaders started talking about a ban last Thursday, with the expectation a key snow band wouldn’t reach Erie County until 10 the next morning, Poloncarz said. Officials didn’t want to institute a ban before 7 a.m. so third-shift workers could get home before temperatures dropped below freezing, he said.
The cold set in “dramatically,” he said. “The snow really went from rain, to sleet, to snow in a matter of less than five minutes.”
Then Friday around 10 a.m. – after the ban was issued – whiteout conditions hit, he said.
“We thought we did it (set the ban) at the right time,” Poloncarz told CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Tuesday. “It’s quite apparent that some of the individuals who perished, perished after; it didn’t matter what time the travel ban was put in place.
“We can look back at it now and say, ‘Yeah, maybe we wish we had done it an hour or two beforehand.’ But in the end … the buck stops with me. … And if it wasn’t right, then I’m going to have to take responsibility for it.”
Poloncarz in turn on Wednesday criticized Buffalo’s mayor’s handling of storm cleanup efforts, saying Brown had not been on daily coordination calls with other municipalities and the city had been slow to reopen.
Brown defended his performance amid criticisms of inadequate response and insisted that changes suggested in a report after a November storm were all implemented.
“I’m not concerned about those comments,” Brown told CNN. “My concern is for the residents of the city of Buffalo.”
Changes suggested in the report following the last storm included “working with the state earlier,” “bringing in private contractors to supplement the plows that the city had,” and “requesting mutual aid earlier,” the mayor said.
“All of those things were done in this storm,” Brown said. “We will continue to improve, we will continue to work to do better.”
When pressed on Poloncarz’s claims that the county had to step in where Buffalo failed, Brown said “he’s wrong.”
Poloncarz later said he let his emotions get the best of him and apologized for his criticism of Brown’s response to the storm, adding that he had personally reached out by phone and text to the mayor.
“This is a very, very difficult situation,” Poloncarz said. “I basically lost my focus I will say that.”
“Too many individuals have died,” he added. “It’s been a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of hours, not a lot of sleep.”
As the death toll continues to rise, there are still John Does, and families that have not been able to find loved ones.
Buffalo is receiving outside assistance to aid with recovery efforts. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday that the state is sending snow removal equipment and personnel to support local emergency crews in cleanup efforts.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is sending nine dump trucks with operators that are expected to arrive by the end of Thursday and will begin 24-hour operations, Wolf said in a release.
New Jersey has also deployed a task force made up of state police assets and FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams, state police said.
The fatal storm has already cost Erie County $5 million on independent county contracts, with $1 million spent Wednesday alone, Poloncarz said.
Police have made 10 arrests in Buffalo in connection with suspected winter storm looting, Gramaglia said Wednesday. Overall, though, the community response to this deadly blizzard, he noted, has been typical of this so-called City of Good Neighbors.
Heartwarming tales of fellowship include a barbershop owner opening his chairs overnight to the storm-weary, a woman who took in a stranger and warmed his frostbitten hands, and a pair of doulas discovered online to help a snow-trapped couple deliver their new baby girl.
As it trudged across the United States, the winter storm snarled holiday travel, sapped electricity and inflicted untold grief on those who lost relatives and friends. Sixty-four storm-related deaths have been recorded: 40 in New York, nine in Ohio, three each in Kansas and Kentucky, two each in Colorado and South Carolina, and one each in Missouri, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin.
CNN’s Caroll Alvarado, Amanda Musa, Celina Tebor, Miguel Marquez, Bonney Kapp, Frank Bivona and Laura Ly contributed to this report.