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Buffalo's recovery from "paralyzing" winter storm continues as death toll rises

Death toll rises in Buffalo
Nearly 50 inches of snow covering the city of Buffalo 02:02

Millions of Americans are still recovering from the winter storm that grew into a bomb cyclone, bringing heavy snow, dangerous wind chills and other hazardous conditions to parts of the U.S. over the holiday weekend. Western New York bore the brunt of what quickly became known as the "blizzard of the century," with Erie County, New York, accumulating a reported 51.9 inches of snow as of Tuesday night.

At least 69 people have died across eight states as of Wednesday, according to a CBS News count. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz reported Wednesday afternoon that the county's death toll had risen to 37, per the county medical examiner's office. That number surpasses the most commonly reported death toll of 29 from the Blizzard of '77, widely known as Buffalo's worst storm of all time until this one, WIVB pointed out.

"It is devastating, paralyzing — it has taken 34 of our fellow citizens. I offer my deepest condolences and sympathies to the individuals who've lost loved ones [during] this holiday season." Poloncarz said. "It's terrible. I understand it. Every time the Christmas season comes along people are going to remember this storm and the death of their loved one."

Buffalo Niagara International Airport announced that it officially reopened by Wednesday afternoon, tweeting a photo of busy terminals and reminding travelers to "check on your flight status with your airline."

All driving bans in Erie County have been lifted except in Buffalo as crews continue to clear roads. The city of Buffalo announced Wednesday night that its driving ban would be lifted at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Power was fully restored to Buffalo Wednesday night, the New York Public Service Commission reported. 

Poloncarz said the National Guard is conducting wellness checks in locations that experienced power outages.

Buffalo Niagara International Airport remains shutdown
Crews at Buffalo Niagara International Airport scramble to clear runways on Dec. 27, 2022. Fatih Aktas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Meteorologists are forecasting a steady rise in temperatures in the county and the rest of the Northeast this week.

Temperatures are expected to be in the upper-30s to mid-40s Wednesday, CBS Buffalo affiliate WIVB-TV said, the mid-to-upper 40s on Thursday and the lower-to-mid 50s on Friday. Officials warned that melting snow could result in minor flooding.

Kathy Hochul, New York state's governor and a Buffalo native, thanked emergency responders and New Yorkers who stepped up to help in the aftermath of the storm.

"The weather events of the past week were some of the worst we've ever seen, but together, we showed that New York always stands strong in the face of adversity," Hochul said in describing the storm on Tuesday.

Stories are now emerging of families who were trapped for days in the blizzard.

As temperatures plummeted, commuters and some residents fleeing their freezing homes became trapped on highways, unable to be rescued. The problem was compounded when some areas were rendered inaccessible to ambulances for dozens of hours and snowplows were unable to perform their job due to the ferocity of the storm — necessitating rescuers being rescued in certain cases.

One father described being trapped in his vehicle on the streets of Buffalo with his four young children for 11 hours before being rescued, according to The New York Times.

Zila Santiago, 30, said he kept his engine running to provide some warmth and fed his children some juice found in his trunk. They were finally rescued at dawn by a passing snowplow.

In a city well-accustomed to snowstorms, some residents were blaming a travel ban they said was enacted too late on Friday morning as contributing to the mayhem.

Buffalo resident Mark Eguliar remained at his workplace, where he was stuck for more than 40 hours.

"Too many people were driving, too many people were not listening to the ban, so the cars were blocking all the roads, making it a lot harder to get home," he said.

The perfect storm of fierce snow squalls, howling wind and sub-zero temperatures forced the cancellation of thousands of flights in recent days. Nearly 2,800 flights have already been canceled within, into or out of the U.S. as of 11:15 a.m. ET on Wednesday, according to the tracking site

Most of the cancellations on Tuesday and Wednesday were at Southwest Airlines, which pulled more than 60% of its flights due to cascading logistics issues, earning it a rebuke from the federal government.

The Department of Transportation tweeted that it was "concerned by Southwest's unacceptable rate of cancellations" and would examine if the company was "complying with its customer service plan," while the U.S. Senate committee overseeing aviation said it would look into causes that "go beyond weather."

In a video statement on Tuesday, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said he was "truly sorry" for the disruptions and that a "massive effort to stabilize the airline" was underway.

He also noted that he had spoken with transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg about the issues, and pledged to "double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what's happening right now."

President Biden on Monday approved an emergency declaration for New York state, freeing up funds to help it recover from the disaster.

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