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Why did dozens of people freeze to death during storm ‘Elliot’?

Buffalo is still ensconced in a white lagoon. Scared, grieving under the weight of thirty deaths from freezing. Observe how a legion of 7,000 workers work a week after the visit of storm ‘Elliot’ cleaning the streets and repairing the last collapsed power lines. At first there were thousands of homes without supply, 1.7 million throughout the US. This Thursday there were only a few hundred. Seven days without electricity. In the dark. No heating. In sub-zero temperatures, looking out the window at the snowdrifts that, perhaps, hide a car full of frozen corpses. In some of those homes the street was no longer contemplated days ago. The police reports cite that several tenants died of cold surrounded by icy blankets and hard as planks.

It is an incredulous city, wondering how a polar storm has beaten and disarmed its 280,000 inhabitants in such a brutal and expeditious manner. To people used to dealing with the cold every winter. This city in the northwest of New York symbolizes the tragedy of ‘Elliot’, a historical phenomenon in a country tortured in recent years by extreme weather crises. An Arctic ‘bomb’ without any comparison in the last half century that has already left more than 60 dead in the United States; 33 of them in Erie and Niagara counties, 27 in its main capital, Buffalo, where the complications are still immense.

The State Police and the National Guard have been monitoring since Monday that vehicles do not enter the dozens of roads that are still semi-blocked. The storm that lasted all of last weekend left the road network impassable, and this Wednesday 198 vehicles were still stranded in Erie under the ice. They had been there since last Friday when ‘Elliot’ decided to unleash all his fury on the United States. Located with the help of drones, they remind us that the bodies of citizens who faced despair may still remain, waiting to be rescued from their defeat before the icy night.

frozen in her car

The main roads have been reopened in the county hardest hit by the storm. About a hundred military police have cordoned off the rest. “Too many people are ignoring the ban” on driving into Buffalo’s interior, authorities warn. The snow still reaches more than a meter in height in various parts of the second largest city of New York and clearing a single lane on the 800 kilometers of highways, avenues and streets of the metropolitan area will take at least until this Friday, calculate the county officials.

Several vehicles remain under the snow on an avenue /

AFP

No one yet knows for sure what the ice hides. The body of Anndel Nicole Taylor, 22, was found in her car on Christmas Eve. The day before she had gone to her work. On the way home, her car got stuck in the middle of a hurricane blizzard, with winds between 80 and 100 kilometers per hour. The thermometers plummeted. The glacial fury created a semi-Antarctic wind chill. In Arkansas it scored -48º. In Iowa, -38º. Anndel called emergency services throughout the afternoon. Unsuccessfully. The system was overwhelmed with thousands of simultaneous emergency calls.

All resources proved insufficient, despite the reinforcements sent to the emergency services in northwestern New York when meteorologists began to warn already on December 19 of the arrival of a dangerous “arctic” bomb like none of those experienced by the state. The authorities argue that the number of medical and rescue personnel have fallen precipitously in the last year (only in October, 10% less) due to the exhaustion caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the resignation of numerous professionals due to the worsening of their working conditions. .

But Anndel was unaware of all these problems on Friday afternoon. She kept pressing a useless emergency number. The streets through which she traveled daily had become a white and hostile plain. Getting out of the vehicle and starting to walk was not an option. At midnight she sent a text message to her sister in North Carolina. She told him that she was very scared and that she was going to try to sleep. That’s where it all ended. A patrol found her frozen body on Saturday. Three days later, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia admitted that a thousand emergency calls like Anndel’s had yet to be answered, mostly made on Friday.

The media have begun to be filled with complaints from residents of Erie and Niagara about the lack of administrative foresight. In view of the worsening of the weather announced for Friday, December 23, many citizens called the authorities and the Police during the previous afternoon begging that circulation be prohibited and, in this way, prevent people from having to leave home to their works. The county recommended avoiding commuting. However, he did not make the decision to ban them until nine in the morning of the fateful Christmas Eve.

By then, the arctic ‘bomb’ had exploded over the heads of thousands of people already on the road or at work. Buffalo is not an easy city. More than half of the population lives with just enough resources. Your neighbors cannot afford a voluntary absence and lose a day’s pay. Chance also wanted ‘Elliot’ to arrive on a Friday, the day the weekly checks were collected, at a time when they were more necessary than ever to meet Christmas expenses.

The activity of the cleaning excavators is a good example of the magnitude and harshness of the storm /

Reuters

Returning to their homes, tens of thousands of workers encountered the gaping jaws of a beast. Neighbors tell chilling stories. The blizzard blinded and cut faces. Snow blocked the streets burying and crossing cars. Darkness reigned in a city subjected to constant blackouts where nothing worked. Motorists decided to abandon their vehicles in search of shelter. One of them, Abdul Sharifu, who had gone out to buy food for his pregnant wife, fell exhausted in a corner. They found him sitting up, turned into an ice statue. The body of a 56-year-old man was found lying on a bench. Forensics think he stopped for a moment to catch his breath. Another thirty people spent three days locked in a barbershop. The hairdresser, Craig Elston, explained that out of humanity he decided to sacrifice Christmas Eve and Christmas with his family. “People told me that I saved their lives, that in another three minutes they felt like they were going to freeze to death. Some had purple fingers.” He is a hero.

Even those who died in the open could not be picked up in the first 24 hours because the rescue and police vehicles also got bogged down. Monique Alexander’s body spent almost a day under the awning of the Jewel King, a store near her home on Delaware Avenue. Monique, a 52-year-old African-American beauty, had three grandchildren and cared for sick people in North Buffalo. “She was just the sweetest person,” says Cassey Maccarone, her 26-year-old daughter. On Saturday she left home. She wanted to do the last shopping for Christmas food. She never came back. Casey called her several times on the phone but she didn’t answer. “I started to panic. I could not believe that she would no longer come back », says the young woman, saddened.

Alarmed, she posted messages in the chats created on Facebook to search for those who disappeared during the storm. Fifteen minutes later, a man answered. He told her that he had found Monique half buried in the snow. He had expired from rapid lethal hypothermia a short distance from her house. He tried to carry her frozen body to a shelter, but “couldn’t walk with her in the middle of the storm,” her daughter says. Finally, she deposited it under the awning of a jewelry store to prevent the snow from covering it, waiting for the National Guard to rescue it. “He loved his grandchildren and her family,” Casey explained to the ‘Buffalo News.’ «We will never know why she left in the middle of the storm. He possibly wanted to buy some more food before all the shops closed ».

racial criticism

A dozen social organizations have called for the resignation of the mayor, Byron W. Brown. They accuse him not only of improvisation but also of racial tensions (he is black) that arose after the storm. Many in the African American community feel that the Administration has lavished unequal treatment on them. They rely on photographs and videos recorded by volunteers, where it would be shown that snowplows have passed more frequently through municipalities such as Kenmore, with a white majority, than through areas inhabited by black and low-income citizens. Buffalo’s driving ban expired Thursday after improved road conditions, but on the East Side hundreds of African-American residents are still snowbound.

A National Guard patrol keeps an access road to Buffalo closed /

afp

“I think travel should have been banned long before the storm hit.” The criticism comes from Felicia Williams, an emergency technician, who spent a large part of the storm inside her ambulance, stranded in a spontaneously sprung snowfield next to a barricade of abandoned cars. He remembers his impotence in the face of the messages from the station that reported families with their babies stuck on the road, people with symptoms of frostbite, neighbors who tried to counteract the coldness of their houses in the dark by boiling water on gas stoves, sick people who stayed without medication and medical colleagues who, like her, could not move through the streets. Byron B. Brown has apologized for the chaos. Unimaginable weather conditions and the absolute paralysis of the streets are two factors of enormous weight that, according to the mayor, aggravated the catastrophe. “The weather became too bad,” apologizes the highest authority of one of the coldest populations in New York, but who had never suffered the devastating potential of ‘Elliot’.

Carolyn Eubanks, 64, is also among the ice giant’s posthumous casualties. She passed away on Christmas Eve. She ran out of oxygen for her heart condition. She resided in Cheektowaga, a few miles from the home of her sons, Antwaine Parker, and her half-brother Kenneth Johnson. The two came to her aid. It took seven hours to get there. Her jeep stopped. Tires go flat at those temperatures. They finished the journey on foot, half buried in the snow. By then, her mother was breathing with great difficulty. Emergency doctors were unable to arrive. They were blocked.

Both decided to take her by their own means to a hospital. But she Carolyn died in the snow while her children held her by the shoulders. “I can’t go on,” she sighed, “Mom, just get up,” Parker encouraged. But she “she never said another word.” Nor could her children shed a tear. At tens of degrees below zero and aware of the impossibility of returning to Cheektowaga, they began to suffer symptoms of frostbite. They knocked on the doors of several nearby houses in fright. A family opened. In their living room, Antwaine and Kenneth were able to watch over their mother’s corpse. Two days later, a hole in the blizzard allowed them to transfer her to a funeral home.

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