The worst of the historic winter weather is likely behind western New York as temperatures were forecast to rise Wednesday and allow the region to thaw, a trend meteorologists say was set to spread across large swaths of the U.S.
But community members are still reeling from storm’s devastating impacts this week. The death toll in Erie County, which contains Buffalo – the area hardest hit in the storm –rose to 34, officials confirmed in a Wednesday morning update.
Along with burying the city with more than 50 inches of snow since Christmas Eve, the storm carried frigid temperatures and extreme winds – with gusts measured stronger than 70 mph at times, according to the National Weather Service.
Those conditions were expected to dissipate Wednesday as temperatures rise into the 40s and 50s throughout next week. Some rain was in the forecast, which along with melted snow, could bring possible flooding.
“It looks like the worst could be behind them,” Brian Thompson, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, told USA TODAY.
Conditions across the U.S. were also expected to warm, with some areas, including the Midwest, seeing temperatures 10 to 20 degrees above average, Thompson said.
Meanwhile in the West, the National Weather Service said Wednesday morning that an active and powerful wet system is expected to hit the Western half of the country over the next week days – with forecasts of moderate to heavy rain, mountain snow and potential flood risks.
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The death toll in Erie County rose to 34 on Wednesday, officials confirmed in a morning update. Three of the people who died remain unidentified.
The county is facing the possibility of finding more victims in the coming days. On Wednesday, the National Guard was going door to door in parts of Buffalo and its suburbs to check on people who had lost power. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said that that officials are “fearful that there are (more) individuals who may have perished” during the storm.
“I offer my deepest condolences and sympathies to the individuals who’ve lost loved ones,” Poloncarz said Wednesday. “I understand that every time that the Christmas season comes along people are going to remember the storm and the death of their loved one. And the stories are just heartbreaking. Just heartbreaking.”
Poloncarz pointed to the death of a man who went out into the storm “to get food and provisions for his pregnant wife who was about to give birth … (but) didn’t make it back home.” The Buffalo News reported that the man, identified as Abdul Sharifu, 26, was found dead outside on Saturday.
Sharifu’s cousin, Ali Sharifu, told the outlet that Abdul Sharifu was working toward buying a home for his family and “was so excited to become a father.”
Buffalo’s driving ban remained in effect Wednesday to keep people off snow-choked roads, Poloncarz confirmed on Twitter and in the county’s Wednesday morning update. The rest of Eerie County was under a driving advisory.
State and military police were sent Tuesday to help enforce the ban on driving. Although some suburban roads and most major highways in the area reopened, Poloncarz said Tuesday that police would be stationed at entrances to Buffalo and at major intersections because some drivers were disregarding the ban.
Heavy rain, snow slams West Coast; 100K without power
The National Weather Service said Wednesday morning that the West could expect rain and mountain snow over the next few days. The region, particularly parts of southern and central California, may also see some scattered flash floods, “with the greatest chances for rapid runoff and debris flows near recent burn scars,” NWS said.
‘A very wet system’:West Coast drenched by atmospheric rivers, raising flood risks
Amid the active wet system moving through the west, thousands have experienced power outages. About 100,000 electric customers in Washington, Oregon and California combined were in the dark early Wednesday, according to counts by PowerOutage.us.
On Wednesday, more than 2,800 flights were canceled within, into, or out of the U.S. by 12:30 p.m. ET, according to FlightAware, leaving thousands of travelers stranded at airports across the country. And already over 2,370 flights were cancelled for Thursday.
President Joe Biden said his administration would hold airlines accountable for the mass cancellations and directed travelers to the Department of Transportation to see if they were eligible for compensation. The Department of Transportation said it would examine Southwest Airlines’ cancellations in particular, which accounted for the majority of disruptions.
Airlines could see further problems later in the week as temperatures rise east of the Rocky Mountains and fog becomes a larger factor.
WHAT TRAVELERS SHOULD KNOW:Nearly 2/3 of Southwest flights canceled
FLIGHTS CANCELED:1,000 Southwest flyers sleep overnight at Denver airport
Storm surpasses death toll in 1977 Buffalo-area blizzard
The growing death toll in the Buffalo area reached a grim milestone Tuesday after it surpassed the death toll in the Blizzard of January 1977 — widely regarded as the region’s worst storm in recent history that killed 29 people over four days, including 12 who were found frozen in stranded cars, The Associated Press reported.
On Wednesday, officials said the number of deaths increased from 31 to 34.
The storm had surprisingly little snowfall, only about 12 inches in Buffalo, but brought sustained, deadly cold temperatures into the area for weeks. Blizzard-condition winds lasted for nine consecutive hours, with zero visibility for 13 consecutive hours.
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Powerful winds instead blew loose snow from previous storms from frozen Lake Erie onto land, creating huge snowdrifts and fully burying houses and cars.
The 1977 “storm is the benchmark storm for the Buffalo area,” Thompson said. “This storm certainly seems like it now has become the deadliest storm in the Buffalo area.”
Thompson noted decades of blizzards across the U.S. that have left hundreds dead, including the 1993 Storm of the Century, which killed more than 300 people in more than a dozen states. It is regarded as the second-most costliest winter storm on record, according to federal weather records.
Contributing: Cady Stanton and Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY. The Associated Press