As a deep freeze grips the United States, millions of people are hunkering down to ride out the storm. So far, the storm has claimed the lives of 24 people across the country, and is expected to claim more before it is over. Many people are trapped inside their homes by heaping snow drifts, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses are without power.
The storm has been unusually large in scope, stretching from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. About 60% of the U.S. population is facing some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures have dropped drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, according to the National Weather Service.
As of early Sunday, 1,346 domestic and international flights had been canceled, according to the tracking site FlightAware.
Forecasters said a bomb cyclone had developed near the Great Lakes, stirring up blizzard conditions, including heavy winds and snow. A bomb cyclone is a strong storm where atmospheric pressure drops quickly.
The storm caused major damage in Buffalo, with hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions, paralyzing emergency response efforts, and shutting down the airport. The National Weather Service said the snow total at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport stood at 43 inches (109 centimeters) at 7 a.m. Sunday.
On Sunday morning, daylight revealed cars nearly covered by 6-foot snowdrifts and thousands of houses, some adorned in unlit holiday displays, dark from a lack of power. With snow swirling down untouched and impassable streets, forecasters warned that an additional 1 to 2 feet of snow was possible in some areas through early Monday morning amid wind gusts of 40 mph.
Two people died in their suburban Cheektowaga, New York, homes Friday when emergency crews could not reach them in time to treat their medical conditions. Another died in Buffalo. Four more deaths were confirmed overnight, bringing the total to seven in Erie County. County Executive Mark Poloncarz warned there may be more dead.
Poloncarz said that some people have been stuck in their cars for more than two days. Some were found in cars, and some were found on the street in snowbanks.
Freezing conditions and day-old power outages had Buffalonians scrambling to get out of their homes to anywhere that had heat. But with streets under a thick blanket of white, that wasn't an option for people like Jeremy Manahan, who charged his phone in his parked car after almost 29 hours without electricity.
Manahan said that there is one warming shelter, but it is too far for her to get to. She cannot drive because she is stuck, and she would get frostbite if she were outside for more than 10 minutes.
Ditjak Ilunga, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ontario, for Christmas with his daughters Friday when their SUV became trapped in Buffalo. Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine running in the vehicle, buffeted by wind and nearly buried in snow.
Ilunga made the desperate choice to risk the storm to reach a nearby shelter at 4 a.m. on Saturday. He carried 6-year-old Destiny on his back while 16-year-old Cindy clutched their Pomeranian puppy. They stepped into his footprints as they trudged through the drifts.
He recalled thinking that if he stayed in the car, he would die there with his kids, but he believed they had to try. When the family walked through the shelter doors, he cried. He said it was something he would never forget in his life.
The storm caused widespread power outages from Maine to Seattle. However, power is gradually being restored across the U.S. According to poweroutage.us, less than 300,000 customers were without power at 8 a.m. EDT Sunday - down from a peak of 1.7 million. In North Carolina, less than 6,600 customers had no power - down from a peak of 485,000 or more.
PJM Interconnection, the mid-Atlantic grid operator, said Sunday that its utilities could meet the day's peak electricity usage, easing concerns about the need for rolling blackouts across eastern states. PJM had called Saturday for the 65 million consumers in its territory to conserve electricity because of struggles by some power plants to operate amid frigid temperatures.
As of Sunday, 121,300 customers were still without power across the six New England states, with Maine being the hardest hit.
As of Sunday, more than 39,000 households in New York were still without power, including 27,000 in Erie County. Crews are battling high winds and finding substations damaged. Even the National Guard, which now has 200 people on the ground and another 200 expected by Monday, is struggling with getting stuck in the snow.
Storm-related deaths have been reported in recent days all over the country. In Erie County, New York, seven people have died. In Ohio, 10 people have died in multiple crashes, including a pileup involving some 50 vehicles, a man whose sport utility vehicle ran into a snowplow, and an electrocuted utility worker. In Missouri and Kansas, four motorists have been killed in separate crashes. A Vermont woman has been struck by a falling branch. An apparently homeless man has been found amid Colorado's subzero temperatures. A woman has fallen through Wisconsin river ice.
The temperature in Florida dropped below freezing for the first time in almost five years, according to the National Weather Service. This cold snap caused iguanas to fall out of trees, since the cold-blooded reptiles typically become immobilized in unusually cold weather.
Terry Henderson and her husband Rick got stuck in a 34-hour traffic jam along Interstate 71 in Kentucky while trying to drive from Alabama to their Ohio home for Christmas. Their rig was outfitted with a diesel heater, a toilet, and a refrigerator, so they were able to weather the jam relatively comfortably.
Terry Henderson said that they should have stayed when they got moving again on Saturday.
In Buffalo, William Kless was up at 3 a.m. Sunday. He called his 8-, 9- and 12-year-old children at their mother’s house to wish them Merry Christmas and then headed off on his snowmobile for a second day spent shuttling people from stuck cars and frigid homes to a church operating as a warming shelter.
He brought about 15 people to the church in Buffalo Saturday, including a family of five transported one-by-one, through heavy, wind-driven snow. He also got a man in need of dialysis, who had spent 17 hours stranded in his car, back home, where he could receive treatment.
Kless said that they just felt like they had to do something.
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