After a massive effort to recover from a deadly winter storm, officials in Buffalo, N.Y., are bracing for the threat of minor flooding in the coming days as warmer temperatures and rain melt thick snowpack .
The historic weekend snowstorm dumped up to 50 inches of snow on the city and created days of cleanup and restoration efforts that included clearing roads, restoring power and completing a backlog of more than 1,000 welfare checks and calls 911 call.
But the next few days could bring fresh frustration for city and Erie County officials as temperatures could soar into the 50s next week, melting snow in piles and possibly rain on Saturday and Tuesday. According to the National Weather Service, the combination of rain and snowmelt could lead to flash flooding.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be very bad,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Thursday.
Erie County officials said they were preparing for the threat of flooding by digging drains so the snow would melt more slowly. Stocks of pumps, hoses and generators are also in place.
The death toll in Erie County has climbed to 39, Polocarz said Thursday, but officials expect the number to rise as medical examiners perform autopsies on deaths believed to be related to the snowstorm.
Families are still not locating their missing relatives, he said, as devastating reports continue to emerge of residents found dead in snowdrifts, trapped in their cars or in their homes. A Buffalo mother was out on Christmas Eve and told her daughter she would be back soon, only to find her body hundreds of feet from their home.
Some officials have received criticism over how they handled the crisis and subsequent cleanup, including questions about whether the driving ban, which went into effect at 9:30 a.m. Friday as the storm hit, should have been implemented earlier. Emergency crews were unable to respond to some calls for help due to stormy weather or roads clogged with cars, officials said.
A contracted Buffalo EMT told CNN she was stuck in an ambulance for hours Friday while trying to answer a call. “The main reason we’re stuck is because there are cars on the road,” Joycelyn Benton said.
Benton said she thinks officials could have deployed snowplows and National Guard resources earlier and enacted travel bans to keep cars off the streets earlier. Poloncarz said two-thirds of the equipment dispatched to help clear snow at the height of the storm got stuck.
A state of emergency remains in Erie County and the lifting of the declaration “will still take some time,” Poloncarz said.
“We cannot lift it at this time because there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Several states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have sent snow removal equipment and first responders to Buffalo and western New York to assist with recovery efforts.
Among those found dead in Erie County were a father-to-be who was just days old, a 22-year-old woman trapped in her car and a grandmother whose body was moved to keep it out of the snow.
One victim, Demetrius Robinson, was found in the snow on Christmas Day, just a day before his 59th birthday, his sister Elizabeth Rudolph told CNN.
Robinson, a Buffalo native, was a carpenter who loved to cook, his sister said.
“He was always inviting the neighborhood kids who were playing outside to eat whatever he made. He treated everyone like family,” she said.
Robinson’s family became concerned when they couldn’t reach him on Friday, but they didn’t know where he was or if he was safe for several days. In the end, the family arrived at the coroner’s office on Wednesday and found his body had been delivered on Sunday, Rudolph said.
“Such a lovely person has disappeared from our lives,” Rudolph said. “He was the kindest, gentlest, sweetest, happiest person you’ll ever meet.”
Robinson is survived by his daughter and son. His son Marqll Daniels remembers his father as his role model and hero.
“I always looked up to Dad in a lot of things. He was always talking to me about being a good guy. He had a really big heart,” Daniels said.