US winter storm traps New York State residents in cars

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At least 28 people have died in western New York state, most of them in Buffalo, as a monster winter storm continues to batter North America.

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A state official said some people had been trapped in cars for more than two days during what was “probably” the worst storm of their lifetime.

Up to nine more inches (23cm) of snow are expected in parts of the state on Tuesday, meteorologists warn.

The storm – stretching from Canada to Mexico – has killed 56 people in total.

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US President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration allowing federal support for New York State. “My heart is with those who lost loved ones this holiday weekend,” he tweeted.

State Governor Kathy Hochul, a native of Buffalo, described the storm as “the blizzard of the century”.

“It is [like] going to a war zone, and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking.”

She added that many emergency vehicles had been unable to reach worst-hit areas or had got stuck in snow themselves.

One local family with young children – aged two to six – had to wait for 11 hours before being rescued in the early hours of Christmas Day (Sunday).

“I was basically just hopeless,” the father, Zila Santiago, told CBS News. He said he managed to stay warm by keeping the engine running, and kept distress at bay by playing games with the children.

Ditjak Ilunga from Gaithersburg, Maryland, told CBS News he was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ontario, with his daughters when their SUV was trapped in Buffalo.

After spending hours with the engine running he made the desperate choice to risk the howling storm to reach a nearby shelter.

He carried six-year-old Destiny on his back while 16-year-old Cindy clutched their Pomeranian puppy, and followed his footprints in the snow drifts.

“If I stay in this car I’m going to die here with my kids,” Mr Ilunga recalled thinking.

He said he cried when the family walked through the shelter doors. “It’s something I will never forget in my life,” he said.

Meanwhile, the owner of a small family-run shop in East Buffalo, who didn’t want to be named, said looters broke into his general store on Christmas Day.

“They took everything. People took toys, electronics and speakers,” he said.

He estimated up to $50,000 (£41,000) worth of equipment was stolen. He said he called the police, “but they told me they were too busy rescuing the elderly”.

Mark Poloncarz, the executive for Erie County where Buffalo is located, said: “We can see sort of the light at the end of the tunnel, but this is not the end yet.”

“It’s a generational storm,” he added.

Citing the local medical examiner’s office, Mr Poloncarz said many of the victims died from heart problems while shovelling or blowing snow. Some were found dead in their vehicles.

More victims are expected to be discovered once melting snowdrifts reveal trapped vehicles and allow access to remote homes.

The “bomb cyclone” winter storm – which occurs when atmospheric pressure plummets, causing heavy snow and winds – has disrupted travel across the US.

How a bomb cyclone can develop

Nearly 4,000 US flights were cancelled on Monday, according to tracking site Flightaware.com.

Forecasters say bad weather will ease in the next few days, but the advice remains to avoid travelling.

Over the weekend an estimated 250,000 homes and businesses experienced blackouts – although power has been steadily restored.

Storm-related deaths were also reported in Vermont, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Colorado. South Florida’s temperatures dropped so low, that iguanas froze and fell from trees.

The western US state of Montana was the worst hit by the cold, with temperatures dropping to -50F (-45C).

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