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A person clears snow in Buffalo, New York following the winter storm. Jeffrey T. Barnes/PA

US winter storm death toll rises to 61

More than three dozen deaths have been reported in western New York state.

LAST UPDATE | 29 Dec 2022

THE DEATH TOLL from a fierce winter storm that gripped much of the United States over Christmas rose to at least 61, officials have said.

Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz said two more deaths had been reported in the western New York region that bore the brunt of the historic storm, bringing the total to 39.

Erie County includes the snow-battered city of Buffalo, where most of the deaths occurred.

Poloncarz said 17 of the 39 victims were found outside, 11 were in homes, four were in cars, four died while shoveling or snowblowing and three were the result of an inability of emergency responders to reach them in time.

Nine deaths were reported in storm-related car crashes in the midwestern state of Ohio with scattered fatalities in at least half-a-dozen other states.

With temperatures rising and snow melting, officials in New York had expressed concerns about flooding but the county executive said “it does not appear like it will be bad.”

“Thankfully, it appears that flooding will be minimal,” Poloncarz said.

He said that electricity had been restored to all of the residents of the county.

As Buffalo dug itself out of the once-in-a-generation storm, there has been mounting criticism of the response of the authorities with Poloncarz calling the city’s handling “embarrassing.”

A travel ban, for example, was not issued in Buffalo until 9:30 am on Friday morning when many people were already on their way to work.

“The city did everything that it could under historic blizzard conditions,” mayor Byron Brown said yesterday.

Meanwhile, officials watched a forecast that calls for some rain later in the week as snow melts in temperatures approaching or topping 10C.

The National Weather Service forecast that any flooding would be minor, but state and local officials said they were preparing nonetheless.

Governor Kathy Hochul said the state was ready to deploy nearly 800,000 sandbags and more than 300 pumps and generators for flooding response efforts if needed.

The storm also brought unseasonably cold temperatures to states such as Texas and Florida and caused chaos at airports, with thousands of flights delayed or canceled.

winter-weather-new-york National guard members check on residents in Buffalo. Jeffrey T. Barnes / PA Jeffrey T. Barnes / PA / PA

Travel disruption

Meanwhile, thousands more flights were cancelled across the US yesterday as a result of the storm.

Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel thousands more flights to try to recover from a spiraling logistics breakdown.

The airline’s woes stranded thousands of customers as well as pilots and flight attendants.

Video on social media showed rows and rows of stranded bags at Southwest in claim areas at airports in Nashville, Orlando and other cities.

“I didn’t try to come earlier this week, it seems to have been such a mess,” said Donald Sneyder, who found himself back at the Baltimore airport three days after his flight to Indianapolis was canceled.

“But I hope to get my luggage back today.”

As she waited in a line of 50, another passenger in Baltimore told AFP she hoped to locate the child seat for her two-month-old.

Southwest Airlines was still days away from resolving its systemwide breakdown: the carrier canceled more than 2,500 flights yesterday, accounting for nearly 90% of all scrubbed US flights, according to tracking website FlightAware.

In a series of media appearances, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recounted telling Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan that the government would “hold them accountable” in requiring the airline to compensate customers for the mounting costs of canceled flights and travel-related expenditures.

winter-weather-travel-chicago Airport staff walks around a pile of lost suitcases near the baggage carousel at Midway Airport in Chicago. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

Jordan said he was “truly sorry” and promised to “make things right for customers,” according to a video statement posted to Southwest’s website.

“We’re optimistic to be back on track before next week,” he added.

Jordan has acknowledged that the problems have underscored the need to upgrade outdated trip scheduling software that became overwhelmed in the storm.

The problem has been highlighted by the flight attendants union, which has called on Southwest to invest more on employees. Several leading Southwest unions remain locked in contract negotiations after earlier pacts expired.

Another union, the TWU Local 555, which represents ground workers, said the meltdown reflected Southwest’s failure to adapt its systems as its operations have evolved.

“Although it can be complicated, especially during the holiday season, we need to consider better spacing of flights during extreme weather events in the bitter cold of winter – as well as the extreme heat of summer,” said Local 555 President Randy Barnes.

Recognizing that Southwest would not get them to Boston from Arizona in time for Monday’s NHL Winter Classic, Tim Maher rented a car for his family and launched a cross-country drive.

Maher told CNN the ride itself had been surprisingly fun, but the family did not have its luggage – a common problem for customers.

“People have gifts or medication or electronics in those bags they just handed you, thinking they’d get it in a couple of hours,” Maher told the network.

Additional reporting from © AFP 2022

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