Millions of people huddled in the deep freeze overnight and into the early morning to battle a cold storm that killed at least 20 people across the United States, trapped some residents in snowdrifts and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.
The scale of the storm was almost unprecedented, stretching from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the Mexican border. About 60 percent of the U.S. population faced some type of winter weather warning or advisory, with temperatures dropping sharply below normal from the eastern Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, the National Weather Service said.
About 1,346 domestic and international flights were canceled early in the week, according to tracking site FlightAvare.
Forecasters said a bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a severe storm — developed near the Great Lakes, causing blizzard conditions including strong winds and snow.
The storm unleashed its fury on Buffalo, with hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions, crippling emergency response efforts — New York Gov. Cathy Hochul said nearly all of the city’s fire trucks were stranded — and closing the airport until Monday. according to officials. As of 7 a.m. Sunday, the National Weather Service reported 43 inches (109 centimeters) of snow at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
Two people died in their homes in suburban Cheektowaga, New York, on Friday when emergency crews couldn’t reach them in time to treat their medical conditions, and another died in Buffalo. Four more deaths were confirmed overnight, bringing the total in Erie County to seven. County Executive Mark Poloncarz warned there could be more deaths.
“Some were found in cars, some were found on the street in snowdrifts,” Poloncarz said. “We know there are people stuck in cars for more than 2 days.”
Freezing conditions and one-day power outages left Buffalons scrambling to get out of their homes anywhere it was warm. But with city streets covered in a thick blanket of white, that wasn’t an option for people like Jeremy Manahan, who was charging his phone in his parked car after nearly 29 hours without power.
“There is one warming shelter, but it would be too far for me to reach.” “I can’t drive, obviously, because I’m stuck,” Manahan said. “And you can’t be outside for more than 10 minutes without freezing.”
‘I will die here with my children’
Ditjak Ilunga of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ontario, for Christmas with his daughters on Friday when their SUV was impounded in Buffalo. Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine in the vehicle battered by the wind and nearly buried in snow.
At 4am on Saturday, with their fuel almost gone, Ilunga made the desperate choice to risk the howling storm to reach a nearby shelter. He carried 6-year-old Destiny on his back, while 16-year-old Cindy held their Pomeranian puppy, stepping in his footprints as they walked through the drifts.
“If I stay in this car, I’m going to die here with my kids,” he recalled thinking, but believing they had to try. He cried when the family walked through the shelter’s doors. “It’s something I’ll never forget in my life.”
The storm knocked out power in communities from Maine to Seattle. But heat and lighting were steadily restored across the US
According to poveroutage.us, fewer than 300,000 customers were without power as of 8 a.m. EDT Sunday — down from a peak of 1.7 million. In North Carolina, fewer than 6,600 customers were without power — down from a peak of 485,000 or more.
Utility officials said the power outage will continue for the next few days.
In six New England states, about 121,300 customers were without power Sunday, with Maine still the hardest hit.
Deaths from the storm were reported in recent days across the country: seven in Erie County, New York; six dead in Ohio, including four in a pileup on the Ohio Turnpike involving about 50 vehicles, a man whose SUV crashed into a snowplow and a utility electrician; four drivers killed in separate crashes in Missouri and Kansas; Vermont woman hit by falling branch; an apparently homeless man found in freezing temperatures in Colorado; the woman who fell through the ice of the Wisconsin River.
In Florida, the thermometer dipped below freezing for the first time in nearly five years at Tampa International Airport, and temperatures dipped into the 20s and 30s elsewhere in central Florida, according to the National Weather Service.
In South Florida, temperatures dropped to as low as 43 degrees (6.1 degrees Celsius) in West Palm Beach. The drop in temperature was conducive to iguanas falling out of trees because cold-blooded reptiles usually become immobilized in unusually cold weather.
‘A Different Christmas’
Along Interstate 71 in Kentucky, Terri Henderson and her husband, Rick, endured a 34-hour traffic jam in a flatbed equipped with a diesel heater, toilet and refrigerator after they got stuck trying to drive from Alabama to their home in Ohio for Christmas.
“We should have stayed,” Terry Henderson said after they moved again on Saturday.
Vivian Robinson of Spirit of Truth Urban Ministries in Buffalo said she and her husband sheltered and cooked for 60 to 70 people, including stranded travelers and locals without power or heat, who spent Saturday night at the church.
Many arrived with ice and snow stuck to their clothes, crying, skin reddened by single-digit temperatures.
“It’s emotional just to see the pain that they thought they weren’t going to make it, and to see that we opened the church, and it gave them a sense of relief,” Robinson said. “Those who are here really enjoy it. It will be a different Christmas for everyone.”