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At least 31 people have died in Buffalo's Erie County due to destructive winter storm

Vehicles are seen abandoned in heavy snowfall in downtown Buffalo, New York, on Monday. Emergency crews counted the grim costs of a colossal winter storm that brought Christmas chaos to the U.S., especially in hard-hit western New York.
Joed Viera
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AFP via Getty Images
Vehicles are seen abandoned in heavy snowfall in downtown Buffalo, New York, on Monday. Emergency crews counted the grim costs of a colossal winter storm that brought Christmas chaos to the U.S., especially in hard-hit western New York.

Updated December 27, 2022 at 8:32 PM ET

The massive winter storm that has affected much of the country has claimed at least 49 lives so far – more than half of them in western New York.

At least 31 people have died in Erie County – which includes the city of Buffalo – because of the storm as of Tuesday evening, according to the county health department. That the number could increase.

Bodies have been discovered in cars, homes and snowbanks. Of the 31 dead in Erie County, 17 were found outside, seven died from lack of heat, three died from cardiac issues from shoveling, three were found in a vehicle and another died due to a delay from emergency medical services, according to the health department.

The storm has caused road closures and forced the cancellation of thousands of domestic flights at one of the busiest travel times of the year.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz called the city of Buffalo "impassable," detailing numerous abandoned cars scattered across roads in all directions.

Despite a driving ban in effect, Poloncarz said at a press conference Tuesday that "too many people" are ignoring the ban.

"We have gigantic dump trucks that are trying to scoop up the snow ... and at the same time they are trying to remove abandoned vehicles, people are trying to drive around it in little Honda Civics," he said.

Poloncarz said 100 military police personnel will work with New York State Police to manage traffic control and get people off the roads.

Members of the New York National Guard help free a car stuck in the snow in Buffalo, New York, on Christmas.
Joed Viera / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of the New York National Guard help free a car stuck in the snow in Buffalo, New York, on Christmas.

It will take two days to create one open lane for every street in Buffalo to make travel easier for emergency responders, Poloncarz said.

But continued snowfall is not making efforts any easier.

Most winter storm warnings that were in place over the weekend have been lifted, but the Buffalo area and other counties in New York are covered by winter weather advisories.

The snowfall pummeling western New York is called lake-effect snow, which occurs when cold air moves across the Great Lakes and forms cloud bands that can produce two to three inches of snow per hour. The National Weather Service said Tuesday that Buffalo will endure one more day of this type of snow, leaving behind a coating to 1 inch, before the system drifts north.

Speaking to NPR's All Things Considered on Monday, Buffalo's mayor called the blizzard "a very devastating and difficult storm, unlike anything that even the city of Buffalo is used to getting."

While Tuesday's forecast seems like nothing compared to the 4 feet of snow that fell in some places over the last few days, officials say it will have an impact as responders work to clear streets.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has described the weather system that brought 49 inches of snow over three days at Buffalo Niagara International Airport "one for the ages."

President Biden approved an emergency disaster declaration for the state Monday night and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support local disaster relief efforts.

Meanwhile, holiday travelers across the country are experiencing flight delays and cancellations as a result of the storm. One of the hardest-hit carriers, Southwest Airlines, canceled 70% of its flight schedule Monday and already 60% of its schedule Tuesday as of 11:30 a.m. ET.

The U.S. Department of Transportation called the cancellations, delays and customer service response "unacceptable," and said it would examine whether the cancellations were controllable.

NPR's Giulia Heyward and Scott Neuman contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Ahn
Ashley Ahn is an intern for the Digital News and Graphics desks. She previously covered the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for CNN's health and medical unit and the trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers for CNN's Atlanta News Bureau. She also wrote pieces for USA TODAY and served as the Executive Editor of her college's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. Recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Ahn is pursuing a master's degree in computer science at Columbia University.