After tremendous efforts to recover from a deadly winter storm, officials in Buffalo, New York, are preparing for the threat of minor flooding in the days to come as warming temperatures and rain melt the heavy snowpack.
The historic weekend blizzard dumped up to 50 inches of snow on the city and created days worth of cleanup and recovery efforts, which included plowing snow from roadways, restoring electricity and completing more than 1,000 backlogged welfare checks and 911 calls.
But the coming days may bring new frustrations for city and Erie County officials as temperatures could rise to as high as 50 degrees next week, melting heaps of snow which could be joined by rain on Saturday and Tuesday. The combined rain and snowmelt could result in minimal flooding, according to the National Weather Service.
“It does not appear that it will be bad,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Thursday.
Erie County officials say they are preparing for the flood threat by digging drainage ditches so the snow melt is more gradual. A stockpile of pumps, hoses and generators is also in place.
The death toll in Erie County has climbed to 39, Polocarz said Thursday, though officials expect that number to rise as medical examiners perform autopsies in cases believed to be blizzard-related deaths.
Some families have still not found their missing loved ones, he said, as devastating accounts continue to emerge of residents being found dead in snowbanks, trapped in their cars or in their homes. One Buffalo mother went out on Christmas Eve, telling her daughter that she’d be right back, only for for her body to be found a few hundred feet from their home.
Some officials have received criticism over how the crisis and subsequent cleanup was handled, including questions over whether a driving ban, which went into effect Friday at 9:30 a.m. as the storm hit, should have been implemented sooner. Officials have said that emergency personnel were unable to respond to some calls for help due to severe storm conditions or roadways blocked by cars.
One contracted Buffalo EMT told CNN she was stuck in her ambulance for hours Friday as she tried to respond to a call. “The main reason we were getting stuck is because there were cars in the way,” said Joycelyn Benton.
Benton said she thinks officials could have deployed snow plows and National Guard resources earlier and instituted the travel ban sooner to keep cars off the street. Poloncarz has said two-thirds of the equipment dispatched to help clear snow during the height of the storm got stuck.
Erie County remains under a state of emergency and the deactivation of the declaration “will still take some time” Poloncarz said.
“We are not in a position where we can lift it at this point because there is still a lot of work that has to be done.”
Several states have sent snow removal equipment and emergency personnel to Buffalo and western New York to aid in recovery efforts, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Among those found dead in Erie County were an expectant father just days from the birth of his child, a 22- year-old who became trapped in her car, and a grandmother whose body was moved so it wouldn’t be snowed on.
One victim, Demetrius Robinson, was found in the snow on Christmas, just a day before his 59th birthday, his sister Elizabeth Rodolph told CNN.
A Buffalo native, Robinson was a carpenter who loved to cook, his sister said.
“He would always invite the neighborhood kids who were outside playing over to eat whatever he made. He treated everyone like family,” she said.
Robinson’s family first became concerned when they couldn’t reach him on Friday, but they went days without knowing where he was or if he was safe. Finally, the family reached the coroner’s office on Wednesday and found out his body had been brought in on Sunday, Rodolph said.
“Such a lovely person has been taken out of our lives,” Rodolph said. “He was the friendliest, gentlest and most loveable and joyous person you’ll ever encounter.”
Robinson is survived by his daughter and son. His son Marqll Daniels remembers his dad as his role model and hero.
“I always looked up to dad for a lot of things. He would always talk to me about how to be a good man. He had a really big heart,” Daniels said.