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Death toll climbs to 25 in western New York's worst blizzard in decades © Reuters. Vehicles are left stranded on the road following a winter storm that hit the Buffalo region in Amherst, New York, U.S., December 25, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) -A powerful blizzard that paralyzed western New York over Christmas weekend has killed at least 25 people, Erie county officials said on Monday, as road and utility crews faced a long day of digging out the snowed-in region around Buffalo.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told reporters at a Monday morning briefing that the county’s tally of storm-related deaths had jumped by 12 overnight, and included cases of people who were found in snow banks, in their cars or who had died from cardiac events while plowing or blowing snow.

More deaths had been reported, Poloncarz said, but the county medical examiner was trying to determine if they were directly attributable to the weather.

“There still are probably additional deaths that will be announced later today,” Poloncarz said.

The blizzard, deemed the area’s worst in 45 years, took form late on Friday and pummeled western New York through the Christmas holiday weekend. It capped an Arctic freeze and winter storm front that had extended over most of the United States for days, stretching as far south as the Mexican border.

At least 55 people have died in U.S. weather-related incidents since late last week, according to an NBC News tally.

The greater Buffalo region, on the edge of Lake Erie near the Canadian border, has been one of the hardest-hit places. Cars and buses were buried under towering snow drifts and high-lift equipment was being used for hospital transports where ambulances could not drive.

Up to a foot of snow was still forecast to fall through Tuesday in some areas south of Buffalo and north of Syracuse.

Heavy winds and “lake-effect” snow – the result of moisture picked up by frigid air moving over warmer lake waters – produced a storm that New York Governor Kathy Hochul said would go down in history as “the Blizzard of ’22,” ranked the worst since a 1977 blizzard killed nearly 30 people.

RESCUE EFFORTS PERSIST

Hundreds of national guard troops were assisting local first responders and state police on Monday as crews rescued people trapped in homes and cars, performed wellness checks and delivered food and basic needs.

Emergency workers have struggled to navigate past snow drifts to do their jobs, and many snow plows, tow trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles dispatched over the weekend had to be rescued themselves after getting stuck in the snow, county officials said.

County Executive Poloncarz said he expected the White House to issue a disaster declaration on Monday, which would help the region cover the daunting expense of storm rescue and recovery.

Thousands of people in Erie County had power restored as of Monday morning, Poloncarz said, while some 13,000 customers were still without power statewide, according to poweroutage.us.

A driving ban was still in effect in Buffalo on Monday, for safety purposes and to keep the roads clear for emergency and utility workers trying to weave through a nearly impassable obstacle course of buried cars and snow banks.

“There are cars everywhere. Everywhere. Pointing the wrong direction on roads, they’ve basically been plowed in and they need to be dug out and towed. It’s going to take time to clear those,” Poloncarz said.

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