'A gut punch': Buffalo residents recall stories of survival as blizzard recovery reaches new milestone
The travel ban in Buffalo ended late Wednesday night thanks to crews who were able to clear enough snow. However, the Erie County community continues to recover from the historic Christmas blizzard that left more than 30 people dead.
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Dump trucks continue to carry small mountains of snow through Buffalo a week after a blizzard crippled the western New York area, dropping more than 4 feet of snow in some places and claiming the lives of at least 39 people.
After six days, Erie County and Buffalo officials lifted the travel ban in Buffalo early Thursday morning thanks to crews who were able to clear enough roads throughout the city.
Buffalo residents are still asked only to venture out for essential needs as hundreds of high-lift vehicles and dump trucks continue to clear streets of snow. After being stuck inside for days, however, people are in need of supplies and trying to get back to any notion of normalcy.
The 858-SNOW emergency hotline mostly run by county employees and volunteers during the storm closed Thursday night.
The New York Department of Financial Services Disaster hotline is now open at 1-800-339-1759. Residents can call with insurance-related questions.
National Guard troops brought meals ready to eat to warming centers, and grocer Wegmans donated baby formula for the hardest hit areas.
On Friday, the Resource Council of Western New York is giving away essential food and supplies until 2 p.m. at 347 Ferry Street.
NYSEG and National Grid customers who lost power during the storm are also able to submit claims for food and medicine that spoiled during the power outages. Those claims need to be in within 14 days of the power outage.
Col. Richard Goldenberg, a spokesman for the New York National Guard, said Thursday that people in the state are used to having their National Guard troops by their sides during disasters.
"We've been building forces throughout the week across a wide variety of tasks and missions … snow removal, delivery of supplies, helping stranded motorists and the most recent case … yesterday, visiting over 800 residences and another 736 of them today," Goldenberg said.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the initial estimate of storm recovery costs had reached about $5 million just for independent contractors. Much of the cost is because of fuel. The vehicles clearing snow are using about 2,000 gallons of diesel every four hours, Poloncarz said.
The nightmare began the morning of Dec. 23 when snow bands from the blizzard-turned-bomb cyclone created whiteout conditions as workers were heading home after a night shift and last-minute shoppers attempted to complete their Christmas to-do lists.
THESE FACTORS COMBINED TO MAKE THE DEADLY HOLIDAY BLIZZARD IN NEW YORK A CATASTROPHE
As conditions worsened, a travel ban was put into place at about 9:30 a.m. By then, however, heavy snow driven by wind gusts over 65 mph left visibility near zero, and drivers abandoned cars in the streets. Others were stuck inside their vehicles, some becoming stranded for almost a day.
Buffalo Niagara International Airport recorded nearly 52 inches of snow, and parts of Erie County spent 37 hours under blizzard conditions with winds gusting over 60 mph.
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With zero visibility, gusting winds and lake-effect snowdrifts, some of the now 39 blizzard victims were found after venturing out into the storm for last-minute supplies. Others died at home in freezing temperatures or from cardiac events while clearing snow. Nearly 30,000 in Buffalo woke on Christmas morning without power, which has since been restored.
Several blizzard victims have yet to be identified.
"It's a gut punch; 2022 has been a horrible year for our community in so many different ways," Poloncarz told reporters.
Just last month, Erie County was hit by a record blizzard that dropped 80 inches of snow, and earlier this year, a gunman killed 10 people at a Buffalo grocery store.
'Part of the solution'
When the snowfall trapped shoppers and customers out in the storm, businesses became a refuge for people with nowhere to go.
Erie County Deputy Executive Lisa Chimera said the people of Erie County were "part of the solution," helping others during the blizzard that will go "down in our history books forever."
"We are going to hear story after story about the city of good neighbors," Chimera said.
During a news conference, Sheriff J. Garcia described how Erie County Undersheriff William Cooley brought people into his home and cared for them during the storm.
Law enforcement and first responders used their personal vehicles to rescue stranded drivers. After the storm, deputies drove 6 hours to Pennsylvania to secure the baby formula donated by Wegmans and deliver it to people in need around Erie County.
A Target housed dozens of people as walls of snow covered the parking lot and their cars.
Buffalo C&C Barber Shop owner Craig Elston turned his business into a temporary shelter for about 50 people throughout the storm.
"People started knocking on the door saying that, you know, if they were outside any longer, even two more minutes, they would have died," Elston told FOX Weather.
Elston let people know on social media they could come to his shop if they need a safe place to shelter from the storm. People arrived at his doorstep nearly frozen from the winds and extreme cold as temperatures dropped to single digits with wind chills well below zero.
"It's the worst thing in my 37 years of living that I've ever experienced as far as the winter," the long-time Buffalo resident said.
Warmer weather forecast as dig-out continues
The chill has finally subsided on Lake Erie.
Tuesday marked the first day since Dec. 20 that the National Weather Service office in Buffalo did not need to issue any winter weather advisories.
"That's one week, 6 hours, 38 minutes," the NWS Buffalo tweeted.
As crews continue to remove mounds of snow from streets and highways, western New York will stay above freezing for the near future.
DRONE CAPTURES INCREDIBLE VIEWS OF THUNDERSNOW OVER BUFFALO SKYLINE AMID HISTORIC SNOWSTORM
A weather system is expected to bring a chance of rain into the recovery areas on Friday and Saturday.
State and Erie County officials said they have been preparing for any potential flooding as the snow melts.
"As temperatures begin to rise, we are preparing for potential flooding due to melting snow in Western New York," New York Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted. "We have nearly 800,000 sandbags & more than 300 pumps & generators ready to deploy."
The Erie County Department of Public Works has an ample supply of resources ready to go if flooding begins.