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At least 50 people have died across the U.S. in 'once-in-a-generation storm'

Kala Smith of Buffalo, N.Y., heads for a food store Monday on Main Street, not far from where she lives, after a massive snowstorm blanketed the city.
Craig Ruttle
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AP
Kala Smith of Buffalo, N.Y., heads for a food store Monday on Main Street, not far from where she lives, after a massive snowstorm blanketed the city.

More than half the deaths occurred in western New York, which struggled with super-size snow drifts that snarled emergency vehicles. Buffalo's responders rescued hundreds trapped in cars.

Updated December 26, 2022 at 2:46 PM ET

A massive winter storm that's killed about 50 people across the U.S. is expected to claim more lives as the frigid weather continues into the week. More than half the deaths occurred in western New York, in what Buffalo's mayor called a "once-in-a-generation storm."

For six days, a blast of polar air from Canada has been wrecking holiday travel plans as it lumbers across the country, leaving power outages, canceled flights and dangerous roads in its wake.

About 60% of the U.S. population faced some sort of winter weather advisory over the holiday weekend. Drastically low temperatures stretched from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande.

Western New York saw days of sustained blizzard conditions, which dropped over 48 inches of snow and sent temperatures plummeting to minus 22 degrees when accounting for wind chill. The region has reported 28 storm-related deaths, The Associated Press reported.

Snow blankets a neighborhood, on Sunday in Cheektowaga, N.Y.
John Waller / AP
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AP
Snow blankets a neighborhood, on Sunday in Cheektowaga, N.Y.

Local authorities say two-thirds of their emergency vehicles — including full-sized National Guard trucks and snow plows — got snarled by super-sized snow drifts.

The Buffalo area was especially hard hit

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told NPR's Morning Edition that his city's emergency responders have gone "car by car" to perform hundreds of rescues of stranded motorists.

"This has been called a generational storm — a once-in-a-generation storm," Brown said. "It's unlike anything that even the city of Buffalo is used to getting."

Conditions were made particularly treacherous by rain earlier in the week: Roads were slick and icy, then hidden entirely by whiteout conditions.

The city's current death toll, 14, is expected to rise as search-and-rescue operations continue.

High winds and snow covers the streets and vehicles in Buffalo, N.Y., early Sunday.
/ WKBW via AP
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WKBW via AP
High winds and snow covers the streets and vehicles in Buffalo, N.Y., early Sunday.

A regional driving ban and airport closure remained in effect as of Monday. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul deployed over 400 National Guard troops to the area and sent an emergency declaration request to the White House.

"It is frightening. It is exasperating. You're just saying, 'When is this going to end?' " Hochul said during a news conference Monday afternoon. "I understand that pain and frustration intensely. [...] But the most important thing is: Please stay home for the next day or so."

Steven Nigrelli, acting superintendent of the New York state police, downplayed reports of looting in Buffalo that gained attention on social media, saying only two instances had been confirmed. But he added that more police would return to patrol in the coming days.

Power outages have eased

Brown told NPR that over 20,000 people were without power in Buffalo at one point.

"That number is now below 10,000, and we will continue to work aggressively and strategically with National Grid all day today to continue to reduce that number and get everyone's power restored," he added, referring to the local utility.

Communities from coast to coast have lost power over the course of the week, but the worst of rolling blackouts appeared to have subsided. A mid-Atlantic grid operator, PJM interconnection, said Sunday that utilities could meet the day's demand after it initially asked 65 million customers to conserve energy amid Saturday's freeze.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 150,000 customers were still without heat and lights, down from a peak of 1.7 million earlier in the week, according to the tracking site poweroutage.us.

A Buffalo barber shop becomes a shelter

When power outages swept across Buffalo late last week, local resident Craig Elston turned his barber shop into a makeshift warming station.

Craig Elston opened his barber shop in Buffalo to residents who lost power or were stranded by a major snow storm last week.
/ Craig Elston
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Craig Elston
Craig Elston opened his barber shop in Buffalo to residents who lost power or were stranded by a major snow storm last week.

"Once I saw the first person laid out on Kingston [street] in the snow, it broke my heart," he told NPR's All Things Considered. "I'm sitting here with heat and light. The barbershop is warm and it's a big space."

More than 30 people responded to the open invitation he posted on social media, he said.

A sense of camaraderie came easy for the ragtag group: They slept in the barber chairs, watched football games and ate a Christmas dinner of hot pockets and chips from his store's vending machine. A few even asked for a haircut, Elston said, and he was happy to oblige.

The National Weather Service said conditions are expected to remain frigid and hazardous on Monday, but start to moderate on Tuesday then continue to slowly improve as the week moves ahead.

It may take days for air travel to get back to normal

That could be good news for winter travelers, but only if they exercise patience. Airports continued toreport thousands of flight cancellations and delays on Monday, with those flying to or from the Great Lakes region looking most impacted.

David Slotnick, an aviation reporter from the travel site The Points Guy, told Morning Edition that the post-storm logistical nightmare was "about as bad as it gets" for the year's busiest travel season.

While travel conditions have more or less stabilized, airline operations are still trying to organize staff and passengers who faced canceled flights, Slotnick said. That means it might take days until operations are back on track.

The NWS is still advising caution for anyone looking to venture outside: High wind speeds and low temperatures are a recipe for frostbite, which can take root in less than 10 minutes of exposure.

Local authorities have reported storm-related deaths from a host of causes. In Niagara County, New York, a 27-year-old man was poisoned by carbon monoxide after snow blocked his furnace. In Ohio, a utility worker was electrocuted. A Wisconsin woman fell through river ice. A falling branch claimed the life of a Vermont resident. At least six were killed in car crashes in Missouri, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Even temperatures in south Texas dropped to the teens last week, causing a nightmare scenario for cities like El Paso, where thousands of migrants are awaiting court rulings on an immigration policy known as Title 42.

The potential end of the policy, which has tightened immigration rules on accounts of the pandemic, has left the city scrambling to open up sufficient shelter space amid a mess of rules about who can foot the bill. Sidewalks near an El Paso bus station were still lined with families as the cold weather hit.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.