After tremendous efforts to recover from a deadly winter storm, officials in Buffalo, New York, are preparing for the threat of minor flooding in the days to come as warming temperatures and rain melt the heavy snowpack.
The historic weekend blizzard dumped up to 50 inches of snow on the city and created days worth of cleanup and recovery efforts, which included plowing snow from roadways, restoring electricity and completing more than 1,000 backlogged welfare checks and 911 calls.
But the coming days may bring new frustrations for city and Erie County officials as temperatures could rise to as high as 50 degrees next week, melting heaps of snow which could be joined by rain on Saturday and Tuesday. The combined rain and snowmelt could result in minimal flooding, according to the National Weather Service.
“It does not appear that it will be bad,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Thursday.
Erie County officials say they are preparing for the flood threat by digging drainage ditches so the snow melt is more gradual. A stockpile of pumps, hoses and generators is also in place.
The death toll in Erie County has climbed to 39, Poloncarz said Thursday. He also said officials expected that number from the winter storm in New York to rise as snow melted and medical examiners performed autopsies in cases believed to be blizzard-related deaths.
But as of Friday, that number still stands. The Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office is not reporting any new deaths resulting from the deadly winter storm, according to an update Friday morning from Poloncarz.
He tweeted from his verified account, “The @ECDOH Medical Examiner’s Office reports no new deaths from the Blizzard and all previously unidentified bodies have now been identified.”
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown reiterated that assessment, saying at a press conference Friday that the number of deceased hasn’t increased.
Brown also said the city was “completely open for business,” as plows and tractors continued to fan out around Buffalo to remove snow and clear roads. Every residential street is now open to vehicular traffic as snow removal equipment has carved out a pass-through lane, he said.
The city, which is preparing for its annual ball drop on New Year’s Eve, has gone back to its daily routine, with Brown adding, “Other places across the country would still be crippled right now.”
A ‘difficult’ year for Buffalo
Mayor Brown, however, admitted that it’s been a particularly difficult year for Buffalo, as residents recover not only from the historic snow storm but also the May 14 mass shooting at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood that claimed the lives of 10. The gunman pleaded guilty in November to 10 counts of first-degree murder.
Mayor Brown said 2022 was “a challenging year and we will acknowledge that,” adding that the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations will include moments of reflection.
“It was a painful year for all of us,” he told reporters.
Dozens of other people in more than 10 other states also died as last week’s winter storm slammed most of the country.
And devastating accounts continue to emerge of Buffalo residents who were found dead in snowbanks, trapped in their cars or in their homes. One Buffalo mother went out on Christmas Eve, telling her daughter that she’d be right back, only for her body to be found a few hundred feet from their home.
Questions have been raised over how the crisis and subsequent cleanup was handled, including whether a driving ban, which went into effect last Friday at 9:30 a.m. as the storm hit, should have been implemented sooner. Officials have said emergency personnel couldn’t respond to some calls for help due to severe storm conditions or roadways blocked by cars.
One contracted Buffalo EMT told CNN she was stuck in her ambulance for hours Friday as she tried to respond to a call. “The main reason we were getting stuck is because there were cars in the way,” said Joycelyn Benton.
Officials could have deployed snow plows and National Guard resources earlier and instituted the travel ban sooner to keep cars off the street, Benton said. Two-thirds of the equipment dispatched to help clear snow during the height of the storm got stuck, Poloncarz has said.
Still, Poloncarz has defended the timing of the driving ban, saying county leaders wanted to give third-shift workers enough time to get home. The rule was in place before whiteout conditions began, he’s said, also noting while “maybe we wish we had done it an hour or two beforehand … the buck stops with me.”
Erie County remains under a state of emergency and the deactivation of the declaration “will still take some time” Poloncarz said.
“We are not in a position where we can lift it at this point because there is still a lot of work that has to be done.”
Several states have sent snow removal equipment and emergency personnel to Buffalo and western New York to aid in recovery efforts, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Victims include father found in snowbank on Christmas
Among those found dead in Erie County were an expectant father just days from the birth of his child, a 22-year-old who became trapped in her car, and a grandmother whose body was moved so more snow wouldn’t pile up on it.
One victim, Demetrius Robinson, was found in the snow on Christmas, just a day before his 59th birthday, his sister Elizabeth Rodolph told CNN.
A Buffalo native, Robinson was a carpenter who loved to cook, his sister said.
“He would always invite the neighborhood kids who were outside playing over to eat whatever he made. He treated everyone like family,” she said.
Robinson’s family first became concerned when they couldn’t reach him on Friday, but they went days without knowing where he was or if he was safe. Finally, the family reached the coroner’s office on Wednesday and found out his body had been brought in on Sunday, Rodolph said.
“Such a lovely person has been taken out of our lives,” Rodolph said. “He was the friendliest, gentlest and most loveable and joyous person you’ll ever encounter.”
Robinson is survived by his daughter and son. His son Marqll Daniels remembers his dad as his role model and hero.
“I always looked up to dad for a lot of things. He would always talk to me about how to be a good man. He had a really big heart,” Daniels said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
CNN’s Robert Shackelford, Caroll Alvarado, Mike Saenz, Amanda Musa, Michelle Krupa, Nouran Salahieh, Alaa Elassar and Jeanne Bonner contributed to this report.