“We have gone through the Great Blizzard of 2022. And it is devastating, paralysing.”
Those words from Erie County official Mark Poloncarz were no mere hyperbole. By Tuesday, the brutal winds and bitter cold brought by winter storm Elliott had proved deadlier for the city of Buffalo, New York, than any such tempest since the famous Blizzard of 1977.
At least 72 people have been killed across the US and Canada as of Wednesday afternoon, according to a review of figures by The Independent. Nearly half of those deaths – 34 – happened in Buffalo and surrounding Erie County.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of flights were cancelled, countless vehicles were stranded in thick snow, and as many as 1.8 million buildings lost electrical power as the deadly “bomb cyclone” blasted across the US from west to east.
Yet amid the chaos, there were also startling stories of collective solidarity in the face of disaster, with citizens and businesses working to shield each other from the worst of the disaster.
“I truly believe they saved lives,” said one woman who took shelter inside a Buffalo Target store, where heroic retail workers set up an impromptu storm shelter with inflatable beds, heaters, snacks, hygiene items, phone charges, and hot chocolate taken from their stock.
Texas freezes while airlines melt down
The US National Weather Service (NWS) described storm Elliott as “one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever”. New York Governor Kathy Hochul called it “a crisis of epic proportions” and “the worst of the worst”.
Temperatures dropped as low as -40C in some places, the coldest Christmas in living memory, bringing dangerous winds and thick blizzards that made travel in many areas impossible.
Blizzards struck everywhere from Iowa to southern Ohio to Quebec and New York. The ice and reduced visibility quickly proved fatal: in British Columbia on Canada’s western seaboard, four people were killed when their bus rolled over on icy roads, while in Ohio four people died in a 50-car pile-up, and four more are likely to have died of exposure in Colorado.
The extreme weather even reached Austin, Texas, where a drive-through car was encrusted by icicles.
Air traffic was frozen too, with thousands of cancelled flights per day according to the flight tracking firm FlightAware. The Texas-based Southwest Airlines went into total meltdown, forcing its chief executive Bob Jordan to apologise to customers and staff.
Southwest’s unique “point to point” business strategy, in which staff and aircraft rotate fly continually between smaller regional airports rather than returning to major “hub” cities in between each trip, made it especially vulnerable to cascading schedule failures.
Some employees were reportedly left on hold for ten hours or more as they waited in hotel rooms across the country to be assigned to new flights, trying and failing to reach the company call centre. Union bosses blamed the airline’s “outdated” crew scheduling software, which they said had simply broken down under the sheer weight of interlocking delays.
“The problem is the software just doesn’t keep track of us,” said one labour leader. “When we get out of position, it’s a tough task for our schedulers to put it back together, and right now they’re having to do it by hand.”
Disaster comes to Buffalo
By far the worst hit was Buffalo, Ms Hochul’s hometown, where officials announced on Wednesday that the death toll had climbed to 34. As the storm rolled in with unexpected speed on 23 December and Christmas Eve, emergency services were unable to respond to 911 calls due to massive snowdrifts and blocked roads, and some people froze to death in their cars or on the streets.
One of them was Anndel Taylor, 22, who sent videos to her family describing how scared she was as she sat trapped in her snow-covered car for more than 18 hours starting on the afternoon of 23 December.
Another was Monique Alexander, 52, a grandmother of three who “just loved taking care of people”, who went out to get groceries on Christmas Eve and was found dead that evening on Delaware Avenue, partially buried in snow.
Abdul Sharifu, 26, died while attempting to get groceries for his pregnant wife, having survived the Second Congo War and a refugee camp in Burundi. Timothy Murphy died in his home of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning after heavy snow blocked up an external furnace.
It is likely that the death toll will continue to rise. “We are fearful that there are individuals who may have perished living alone, or two people who are not doing well in an establishment,” said Mr Poloncarz on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, he said the New York National Guard would be going door to door conducting wellness checks in every neighbourhood that had lost power, while emergency services would check in on everyone who had called 911 or the county’s 585-SNOW emergency helpline.
“No call will go unanswered,” said one official, though he added: “We may not like the answers when we make those contacts.”
’The city of good neighbours’
In response to reports on social media of looting in Buffalo shops began to surface on social media, city mayor Byron Brown vowed to come down “very aggressively” on the culprits, branding them the “lowest of the low”.
But that kind of malice appears to have been an extreme minority. Far more common were stories of people going out of their way to help others survive the horrific weather.
Staff at the Buffalo Target gave shelter to about two dozen people, creating an impromptu “slumber party”. “They said, ‘anything you need, it’s on us. Just let us scan it first’,” one grateful temporary resident told The Buffalo News.
Another 40 people took refuge in a barbershop, sometimes sleeping in the reclined barber chairs. “It was crazy, man,” said the shop’s owner Craig Elston, 37. “People told me I saved their life, that in another three minutes they felt like they were going to die from the freezing cold. Some peoples’ fingers were purple...
“There were definitely some argument. There was friction, 100 per cent. I handled everything in the fashion it needed to be handled.”
On Christmas Eve, a woman called Erica Thomas gave birth to her daughter Devynn while trapped in her home. Her partner Davon delivered the baby after frantically collating tips from friends, a local Facebook group, and a doula.
Another couple opened their doors to a man named Antwaine Parker who was attempting to rescue his sick mother, 63-year-old Carolyn Eubanks, from her powered-down home. She collapsed in the street and was carried into the house, where the group tried and failed to resuscitate her. The couple then agreed to look after the body, since it would be too difficult to carry it back to Mr Parker’s car.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Poloncarz described how some Erie County phone operators had to be excused from duty, such was the emotional distress of trying to assist people who believed they were about to die while knowing that there was no way for emergency services to reach them.
“They call us the city of good neighbours. We’ve proven that, and we will recover,” said Mr Poloncarz. But he also admitted: “2022 has been a horrible year for our community. Karma owes us big time.”
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