Winter storm death toll rises as recovery efforts and travel issues continue

By Aditi Sangal, Mike Hayes, Maureen Chowdhury, Elise Hammond and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 7:14 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022
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7:14 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

Here's what you need to know about the winter storm and its lingering effects 

From CNN Staff

Multiple people have died, some cities are still buried in snow and millions of people are facing high wind alerts after a severe winter storm swept across the country over the holiday weekend.

If you're just now catching up, here are some of the latest developments:

Rising death toll. At least 56 people have died nationwide across several states including New York, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Travel impacts. Around 3,000 flights within, into or out of the US were canceled as of Tuesday afternoon and 3,809 were delayed, according to tracking site FlightAware. Of those cancellations, some 2,500 were operated by Southwest Airlines. In a company-wide message sent late Monday night, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan and COO Andrew Watterson outlined a series of failures that attributed to the operation impacts, including the winter storm and system failures. Jordan told customers "we will get out of it, and we will focus on our tools, our processes" and win them back.

Harrowing conditions in Buffalo. By Tuesday morning, snowfall in Buffalo reached 100 inches, making it the fastest the city has ever done so. Just over half of the season’s record-pace snowfall has come since Friday, and it is already the third snowiest December on record. Officials in Erie County are working to deliver fuel to emergency crews and grocery supplies to markets as winter weather conditions are hampering firefighter emergency response efforts and impacting road conditions. And as of Tuesday evening, eight people have been arrested in Buffalo in connection to alleged winter storm looting, according to the Buffalo police Department.

West coast storms. Meanwhile, a series of Pacific storms are slamming the West coast with heavy rain, mountain snow and strong winds, according to the National Weather Service. More than 175,000 people were without power as of Tuesday afternoon.

7:09 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

Transportation secretary says he spoke to Southwest CEO today and will hold airline accountable for "meltdown"

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks ahead of expected Thanksgiving travel at O'Hare airport in Chicago on November 21. 
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks ahead of expected Thanksgiving travel at O'Hare airport in Chicago on November 21.  (Jim Vondruska/Reuters)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN that he spoke to the CEO of Southwest Airlines Tuesday about the company's barrage of flight cancellations, calling it a "meltdown" and "unacceptable situation."

"From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage," Buttigieg told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, adding that he also spoke with leaders of the airline’s unions representing flight attendants and pilots.

The secretary said he told CEO Bob Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense reimbursement to affected passengers without them having to ask. “I conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they are going to go above and beyond to take care of passengers and to address this,” he said.

Southwest has blamed the travel disaster on a combination of factors, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight scheduling and outdated infrastructure.

Buttigieg said that the Transportation Department will hold the airline accountable to make sure this situation does not happen again.

"Their system really has completely melted down and I made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and make sure this can't happen again," he said.

Buttigieg told CNN the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but he added that the department will be taking a closer look at consistent customer service problems at the airline.

“While all of the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better each day, it's actually been moving the opposite direction with this airline,” Buttigieg said. “You've got a company here that's got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he added.

The Transportation secretary explained the enforcement tools that are at their disposal and how earlier this year, the department was able to assist customers with reimbursements.

"We have enforcement tools we have been using, especially this year. We saw for example a number of airlines that had cancellations. They weren't taking good care of their passengers through enforcement actions we've been able to get hundreds of thousands of passengers their money back to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. We're also in a position to use enforcement powers and fines to hold airlines to the things that they have now committed to us, pledged to us in writing that they'll do," he said.

The Transportation secretary said the government shouldn't need to get more money from the airline in order to help reimburse these passengers. "I expect the airline to go ahead and directly take care of passengers with reimbursements and whatever else they need to do to compensate these passengers.” Buttigieg said. “But yes, if they fail to do that, we’ll use our authorities to make that happen on our side."

Asked how severe the fines will be, Buttigieg told Blitzer: "The bottom line is this shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Obviously we’ll follow through and use our authority to issue fines if that’s what it takes to get something done, but the real question is how to do you get to this situation where an airline can’t even say where it’s own personnel are, let alone keep track of passengers and baggage."

CNN's Andy Rose contributed reporting to this post.

5:23 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

Erie County death toll from winter storm rises to at least 31, county executive says

From CNN's Laura Ly

At least 31 people are now confirmed dead as a result of the winter storm in Erie County, New York, according to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

The deaths were confirmed by the Erie County Medical Examiner, Poloncarz said in a tweet.

According to Poloncarz, the storm fatal casualties are as follows: 

  • 1 death was from an EMS delay
  • 17 people were found dead outside
  • 3 people died from cardiac events while shoveling or blowing snow.
  • 7 deaths were due to no heat
  • 3 of the deaths happened in a vehicle

Poloncarz previously said three people died due to a storm-related EMS delay, but has corrected this to one person after the Erie County Medical Examiner determined that two of the deaths were not storm-related. 

4:51 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

Chair of Senate committee pledges panel will look into causes of Southwest Airlines meltdown

From CNN's Ted Barrett

Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, issued a statement Tuesday pledging the panel would be looking into the causes behind Southwest Airlines' cascade of flight cancellations.

“The problems at Southwest Airlines over the last several days go beyond weather,” she said in a statement. “The committee will be looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact on consumers.”

Earlier Tuesday, Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut issued a new letter calling on Southwest to pay up for what they say were avoidable holiday cancellations.

More on the flight cancellations: A winter storm that swept across the US over the Christmas weekend has snarled holiday travel, with 3,000 flights within, into or out of the US canceled as of Tuesday afternoon, according to tracking site FlightAware.

Of those cancellations, some 2,500 are operated by Southwest. The airline's executives have blamed the nixed trips on the storm and system failures, according to a company-wide message obtained by CNN.

4:07 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

Winter weather conditions are hampering firefighter emergency response efforts in Buffalo

From CNN's Sabrina Souza 

An emergency vehicle speeds past other drivers on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo on Monday.
An emergency vehicle speeds past other drivers on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo on Monday. (Joseph Cooke/The Buffalo News/AP)

Firefighter teams in Buffalo, New York, have been facing some challenges in battling flames due to weather conditions, according to Peter Anderson, the press secretary for Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. 

A Buffalo Fire Department representative told Poloncarz’s office that they've responded to 11 working fires since Friday, all of which required extra equipment due to the weather conditions and nature of the fires, Anderson said.  

The fires have displaced at least 31 people in Buffalo, but there are no fire-related fatalities at this time, Anderson said. 

Firefighters are "absolutely" facing roadblocks across the county as the weather deters efforts to respond, according to Anderson. Across Buffalo, hundreds of vehicles abandoned in the snow, hazardous driving conditions and snow-covered lanes are creating accessibility issues for the firefighters and even emergency and recovery vehicles are getting stuck in snow, he said.  

The county executive’s office said the Buffalo Fire Department plans on filing an investigation into the cause of the fires, which have cost homeowners roughly $1.8 million in damages.

3:45 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

Why the bitter cold is so dangerous — and what you can do to protect yourself

From CNN's Jacqueline Howard

With freezing temperatures still forecasted for parts of the US, doctors are warning about the dangers of the bitter cold.

Many of us feel the effects in our toes and fingertips before elsewhere in the body. This happens as your body works to protect your vital organs from the cold, Dr. Suzanne Salamon, associate chief of clinical programs at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, previously told CNN.

“The blood vessels in all different parts of the body will constrict,” she said. “They’ll get smaller to try to preserve heat."

“What the body tries really hard to do is to protect the most important organs, which are the ones deep inside: the heart and brain and lungs,” she said. “The body tries to keep those warm by redirecting heat from the fingers and toes inward, so the blood vessels in the fingers and toes get really small, and not enough blood goes through them.”

This is important for the body to do — and to do quickly — because wintry weather has been associated with health risks for heart attacks, asthma symptoms, frostbite and hypothermia.

“You always hear about people going out and shoveling snow and having a heart attack,” Salamon said, explaining that this is partly because cold weather can act to narrow the blood vessels, and that can put stress your heart.

“The most worrisome health effect from cold exposure is hypothermia, which can cause damage to vital organs, including the heart, nervous system and kidneys. In extreme cases, death can occur. This often is a result of abnormal cardiac rhythms,” said Dr. Jeahan Colletti, an emergency medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, previously told CNN.

What you can do: An important risk-reducing measure hinges on wardrobe and making sure you dress in layers that are not too tight. The air that’s trapped in between each layer helps keep you war, according to Salamon.

“You really need to have looser sweaters, shawls if you’re sitting inside, to try to layer up. It helps to have a ski mask to protect your ears and your nose,” she said. “If you get wet, like if you’re out playing in snow or shoveling snow, take off wet clothes, because the wet clothes really make it worse. They make things colder. … Boots should be waterproof.”

Preventive measures not only involve dressing for the cold but also avoiding too many cocktails in cold weather, said Colletti, of the Mayo Clinic. Alcohol "causes dilatation of the body’s blood vessels, increasing heat loss,” she said.

3:11 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

Loyal Southwest flyer frustrated by luggage troubles in Chicago: "This is absolutely insane"

Southwest flyer Rami Nashashibi speaks to CNN on Tuesday at Chicago's Midway International Airport.
Southwest flyer Rami Nashashibi speaks to CNN on Tuesday at Chicago's Midway International Airport. (CNN)

Some 2,500 flights operated by Southwest have been canceled Tuesday, due to what the president of Southwest Airlines' Pilots Association blamed on weather and outdated IT infrastructure for scheduling software.

Rami Nashashibi, a loyal Southwest customer of 20 years, said the airline "has lost their ability to control the situation."

These "last 48 hours has been the worst fiasco I've ever seen in the last 20 plus years with Southwest," Nashashibi told CNN from Chicago's Midway International Airport.
"I've never seen Midway like this, where folks are just literally sleeping all over the place, standing in lines. We've been on phones with agents, phone lines have been cut off. No one knows what to say. Even the poor agents sitting behind counters have quietly admitted that this is absolutely insane."

He said he and his family were anticipating a few days out of the city. They now are looking to reschedule another vacation, but are unable to as their bags are stuck in the airport, Nashashibi explained.

"We have medicine, thousands of dollars of, you know, clothes and everything else in those suitcases that are still at Midway Airport," Nashashibi said.

Southwest agents, he said, have told him "that they don't have enough people" to retrieve the bags from the airport. Instead, Nashashibi says he's been advised by agents to later request that his bags be flown back from the destination of a canceled flight.

"That type of just absolute asinine logic is being kind of shoveled mindlessly by Southwest agents across the country," Nashashibi said.

He called for federal involvement, which President Joe Biden on Tuesday said his administration is working on.

"There may need to be some type of federal intervention to help them rectify what has caused, I'm sure, millions of dollars of damage to families that otherwise have been depending on these days just to get some type of R&R," he said.

CNN's Rebekah Riess contributed reporting to this post.

2:54 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

Southwest executives explain how airline’s systems failed in company-wide message

From CNN's Ross Levitt

In a company-wide message sent late Monday night, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan and COO Andrew Watterson outlined a series of failures that forced the airline to cancel thousands of flights — and continue to dramatically hamper its operations nationwide.

A transcript of the message was obtained by CNN from an aviation source.

In the message, the executives said the problems began due to the winter storm that affected all of airlines, but that in the aftermath, it was the failure of Southwest's systems that couldn't match crews that had available hours with aircraft that were ready to fly.

“We had People that were legal. We had aircraft that were available, but the process of matching up those Crew Members with the aircraft could not be handled by our technology. In our desired state, we have a solver that would be able to do that very quickly and very accurately. Our system today cannot do that,” Watterson explained, adding that the process had to be handled manually, which was "extraordinarily difficult.”

“(W)e spent multiple days where we kind of got close to finishing the problem, and then it had to be reset. And so now is our latest plan because the last one last night did not work. We had a bad, awful day today,” the COO added, saying with the scaled-back schedule, the airline will have “more than ample Crew resources to handle that amount of activity.”

Jordan said in the message, adding that he recognized the continued impacts on Southwest's customers. “This is a very tough place to be, but we will get out of it, and we will focus on our tools, our processes, winning our Customers back, winning you back and making sure that we are reliable and stable.”

2:24 p.m. ET, December 27, 2022

What to do if your flight has been canceled or delayed

From CNN's Forrest Brown

A traveler looks at an information board showing flight cancellations and delays at Detroit Wayne County Metro Airport on Saturday.
A traveler looks at an information board showing flight cancellations and delays at Detroit Wayne County Metro Airport on Saturday. (Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

It has been a tough slog for many air travelers in 2022. And the year is going out as rough as it came in after a massive winter storm impacted large parts of the country.

So, what if you're one of the unlucky passengers caught up with a canceled or delayed flight?

Here's some advice:

Avoid flying in bad weather altogether. When you know a major weather event is forecast, utilize waivers offered occasionally by airlines to change flights ahead of time without a fee, Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, suggested.

Avoid getting trapped at the airport. Check your flight status before you go to the airport, sign up for airlines' free text alerts and check the website FlightAware to track larger flight trends across the country, Keyes advised.

Communicate. Should delays and cancellations happen after you've arrived at the airport, Keyes says to head to the airline agent's desk as fast as you can. Then you might want to call your carrier while waiting, or get through to an international call center, he said. You can also use a self-serve kiosk, according to American Airlines.

Attitude and research matter. Speaking to agents with kindness and sympathy can go a long way, Keyes said. US PIRG, a consumer advocacy group suggests fliers should be ready to explain what you want and be persistent in trying to get the situation resolved satisfactorily.

Other airlines may be able to help. Cooperation between airlines could work in your favor. Due to interline agreements, some airlines can put you on another carrier's flight, Lousson Smith of Scott's Cheap Flights told CNN travel.

Consider buying travel insurance. Many travel insurance policies provide extra coverage in the case of flight delays and cancellations, according to Airport Parking Reservations. The site also advises you keep any receipts of airport purchases because you can try to get the money back from the airline later.

Look into refund entitlements. The US Department of Transportation says you are entitled to a refund of your ticket cost because of a cancellation or "significant delay" and you choose not to travel.