At least 34 dead as millions hunker down from frigid U.S. storm over Christmas

Millions of people hunkered down amid a deep freeze Sunday as a winter storm has killed at least 34 people across the United States. It's expected to claim more lives after trapping some residents inside with heaping snow drifts, and knocking out power to tens of thousands of residences and businesses.

Officials in New York state warn death toll could rise as emergency crews struggle to reach people

A house covered in ice along the shore of a lake.
Hoak's restaurant is covered in ice from the spray of Lake Erie waves during a winter storm that hit the Buffalo region in Hamburg, N.Y., on Saturday. (Kevin Hoak via Reuters)

Millions of people hunkered down amid a deep freeze Sunday as a winter storm has killed at least 34 people across the United States.

It's expected to claim more lives after trapping some residents inside with heaping snow drifts, and knocking out power to tens of thousands of residences and businesses. 

The scope of the storm has been nearly unprecedented, stretching from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico.

About 60 per cent of the U.S. population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, the National Weather Service said.

Travellers' weather woes are likely to continue, with hundreds of flight cancellations already and more expected after a bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops quickly in a strong storm — developed near the Great Lakes, stirring up blizzard conditions, including heavy winds and snow, ahead of Christmas.

Some 1,707 domestic and international flights were cancelled on Sunday as of about 2 p.m. ET, according to the tracking site FlightAware.

A large tree lies on a street in a snowstorm.
A giant tree lays across the intersection of West Delavan Avenue and Bidwell Parkway in Buffalo, N.Y., on Saturday. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News via The Associated Press)

Storm death toll could keep rising

Storm-related deaths were reported in recent days across the country.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz said 10 more people died in Erie County during the storm, including six in Buffalo, and warned more may have lost their lives.

"Some were found in cars, some were found on the street in snowbanks," said Poloncarz. "We know there are people who have been stuck in cars for more than two days."

Two people died in their suburban Cheektowaga, N.Y., homes Friday when emergency crews could not reach them in time to treat their medical conditions, and another died in Buffalo.

In Niagara County, a 27-year-old man was overcome by carbon monoxide after heavy snow blocked his furnace.

At least 10 people have died in Ohio, including four in an Ohio Turnpike pileup involving some 50 vehicles, a man whose sport utility vehicle ran into a snowplow and an electrocuted utility worker.

Cars drive past wrecked vehicles seen behind a highway median in a snowstorm.
The Ohio Turnpike was closed in both directions Friday after a massive pileup blocked traffic amid a severe winter storm. (@mikewaldron115/Twitter via Reuters)

Six motorists were killed in separate crashes in Missouri and Kansas.

A Vermont woman struck by a falling branch, while an apparently homeless man found amid Colorado's subzero temperatures. 

In Wisconsin, a woman died after falling through river ice.

Buffalo bears brunt of bad weather

The storm unleashed its full fury on Buffalo, with hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions, paralyzing emergency response efforts. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said almost every fire truck in the city was stranded Saturday. Officials also announced plans to shut down the airport through Tuesday morning. 

The National Weather Service said the snow total at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport stood at 109 centimetres at 7 a.m. Sunday.

Daylight Sunday revealed cars covered by snowdrifts nearly two metres high and thousands of houses, some adorned in unlit holiday displays, dark from a lack of power.

With snow swirling down untouched and impassable streets, forecasters warned that an additional 30 to 60 centimetres of snow was possible in some areas through early Monday morning amid wind gusts of 64 km/h.

A high snow drift covers a vehicle.
High winds and snow covers the streets and vehicles in Buffalo on Christmas morning.  (WKBW via The Associated Press)

Freezing conditions and day-old power outages had Buffalonians scrambling to get out of their homes to anywhere that had heat. But with city streets under a thick blanket of white, that wasn't an option for people like Jeremy Manahan, who charged his phone in his parked car after almost 29 hours without electricity.

"There's one warming shelter, but that would be too far for me to get to. I can't drive, obviously, because I'm stuck," Manahan said. "And you can't be outside for more than 10 minutes without getting frostbit."

A man shovels snow beside a red car in a snowstorm.
Gamaliel Vega tries to dig out his car on Lafayette Avenue after he got stuck in a snowdrift about a block from home while trying to help rescue his cousin, who had lost power and heat with a baby at home across town during a blizzard in Buffalo on Saturday. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News via The Associated Press)

Stranded in the storm

William Kless was up at 3 a.m. Sunday He called his 8-, 9- and 12-year-old children at their mother's house to wish them Merry Christmas and then headed off on his snowmobile for a second day spent shuttling people from stuck cars and frigid homes to a church operating as a warming shelter.

Through heavy, wind-driven snow, he brought about 15 people to the church in Buffalo Saturday, he said, including a family of five transported one-by-one. He also got a man in need of dialysis, who had spent 17 hours stranded in his car, back home, where he could receive treatment.

"I just felt like I had to," Kless said

A man pushes a snow blower behind a high snowbank next to a driveway.
Martin Haslinger clears snow from the front of his Buffalo home on Sunday. (Bridget Haslinger/The Associated Pres)

Ditjak Ilunga of Gaithersburg, Md., was on his way to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ont., for Christmas with his daughters Friday when their SUV was trapped in Buffalo. Unable to get help, they spent hours with the engine running in the vehicle buffeted by wind and nearly buried in snow.

By 4 a.m. Saturday, with their fuel nearly gone, Ilunga made a desperate choice to risk the howling storm to reach a nearby shelter. He carried 6-year-old Destiny on his back while 16-year-old Cindy clutched their Pomeranian puppy, stepping into his footprints as they trudged through drifts.

A person in a red coat walks through a winter storm.
A winter storm rolls through western New York on Saturday as a battering winter storm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across the United States. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/The Associated Press)

"If I stay in this car I'm going to die here with my kids," he recalled thinking, but believing they had to try. He cried when the family walked through the shelter doors. "It's something I will never forget in my life."

Vivian Robinson of Spirit of Truth Urban Ministry in Buffalo said she and her husband have been sheltering and cooking for 60 to 70 people, including stranded travelers and locals without power or heat, who were spending Saturday night at the church.

Many arrived with ice and snow plastered to their clothes, crying, their skin reddened by the single-digit temperatures.

"It's emotional just to see the hurt that they thought they were not going to make it, and to see that we had opened up the church, and it gave them a sense of relief," Robinson said. "Those who are here are really enjoying themselves. It's going to be a different Christmas for everyone."

WATCH | More than two thirds of Americans under an extreme weather alert:

Winter storm pummels U.S. ahead of holidays

3 months ago
Duration 1:59
A massive winter storm is pummeling the U.S., with more than two thirds of Americans under an extreme weather alert. Millions of homes and businesses are without power in the East Coast, Midwest and Texas.

Power outages from east to west

The storm knocked out power in communities from Maine to Seattle. But heat and lights were steadily being restored across the U.S. According to, less than 300,000 customers were without power at 8 a.m. ET Sunday — down from a peak of 1.7 million.

In North Carolina, less than 6,600 customers had no power — down from a peak of 485,000 or more. Utility officials said rolling blackouts would continue for the next few days.

Across the six New England states, about 121,300 customers remained without power on Sunday, with Maine still the hardest hit.

In Jackson, Mississippi, city officials on Christmas Day announced that residents must now boil their drinking water due to water lines bursting in the frigid temperatures.

In Tampa in Florida, where across the state cooler weather than normal has been reported, the thermometer plunged below freezing for the first time in almost five years, according to the National Weather Service — a drop conducive to cold-blooded iguanas falling out of trees.

Along Interstate 71 in Kentucky, Terry Henderson and her husband, Rick, weathered a 34-hour traffic jam in a rig outfitted with a diesel heater, a toilet and a refrigerator after getting stuck trying to drive from Alabama to their Ohio home for Christmas.

"We should have stayed," Terry Henderson said after they got moving again Saturday.

People sitting up against a concrete wall inside an arena.
Homeless people rest on cots at an emergency shelter in Broadbent Arena on Christmas Eve in Louisville, Ky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)