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  • The San Juan Daily Star

‘It was just a crying day’: Families mourn those killed in the storm

An aerial view after the snowstorm in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. Residents have been stranded at home for days by a punishing winter storm.

By Lola Fadulu, Hurubie Meko and Sarah Maslin Nir

Trapped in her car as a blinding snowstorm engulfed Buffalo, New York, Anndel Nicole Taylor, 22, texted her family that she was scared. She had been calling emergency services for hours Friday but kept being put on hold.

At midnight, with 4 feet of snow piling up on the ground and her car still stuck, she told her family she was going to try to get some sleep.

“That was the last time we spoke to her,” said her older sister, Shawnequa Renee Brown, 35, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Taylor was found dead in her car on Christmas Eve.

A certified nursing assistant, Taylor had moved from Charlotte to Buffalo about two years ago to care for their ailing father. On Christmas Day, the family gathered in North Carolina, mourning at what should have been a celebration. Taylor’s presents were under the tree, still wrapped.

“It was just a crying day,” Brown said. “All day long, we just cried.”

In western New York, the death toll from the punishing winter storm continued to climb four days after the snow began Friday; nearly 30 people were reported dead after the mayor of Buffalo reported eight more fatalities Tuesday morning.

Even as the rescue effort continued, officials and emergency workers were reeling from what they said was the extraordinary challenge of saving people in this blizzard, which set records for its duration — 36 straight hours — and 79 mph winds.

In Charlotte, Taylor’s sister was making funeral plans, she said, and taking refuge in her favorite memories of Taylor, including the way her younger sister would belt out the chorus to her favorite song, “Bless-Sin” by Juiicy 2xs, and how easily she made friends.

“She’ll meet you one time and now y’all friends forever,” Brown said. “She was the strong one in the family.”

On social media, some residents have criticized the storm response as sluggish, particularly taking umbrage at officials who, they felt, suggested that those who became trapped or died while awaiting rescue that never came, had themselves in part to blame.

Mayor Byron W. Brown disputed that characterization.

“We are certainly not blaming individuals who were driving,” he said, adding, “but the act of driving during a blizzard during zero visibility and whiteout conditions, as you can surmise, made the emergency response much more difficult and much more complicated.”

Even as residents were warned to stay home, Abdul Sharifu was among those who took a chance.

On Saturday, with his pregnant wife due to give birth next week, Sharifu, 26, ventured out in his car for groceries, despite her warning him not to, according to a friend, Enock Rushikana.

On Monday, the body of Sharifu, a Congolese refugee who fled war in 2017 and resettled in Buffalo, was identified by a friend at the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital. His car had been found Saturday, abandoned on the corner of Main and Utica streets; his friends believe he had become stuck and tried to walk home.

He had been known by the nickname “911,” for his giving nature and propensity to drop everything to help others in need in his tightknit community of people who identify as members of the tribal Bafuliru group, Rushikana said. He had been overjoyed about becoming a father to a son.

“It’s his first child,” said Rushikana, who considered Sharifu a nephew. “He was very excited.”

On Saturday, Christmas Eve, disturbing video of a body apparently frozen in a snowbank began circulating. It appeared to be William Clay, who went by Romello, according to a GoFundMe for funeral expenses created by his sister, Sophia Clay. On that day, she wrote, he would have turned 56.

A part-time home health aide and part-time housekeeper at a hotel, Monique Alexander, 52, was also found partly buried in the snow on Delaware Avenue that day, according to her daughter, Casey Maccarone.

“She was the most outgoing person I knew,” Maccarone said. “She was loyal to everyone she knew.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office announced the identity of another victim: Timothy M. Murphy, 27, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning on Christmas Day after heavy snow choked the external furnace of his residence in Lockport, New York.

Cleanup efforts continued Tuesday in Buffalo, a city of 275,000 along Lake Erie. About 4,000 people still remained without power, according to the mayor’s office, and the community feared that the death toll would rise as emergency workers reached more stranded vehicles and powerless homes.

An additional 3 to 5 inches of snow was expected in the region, according to the National Weather Service.

There were reports of some incidents of looting. Carl Anderson Jr., 59, the owner of Louie’s Texas Red Hots restaurant on Bailey Avenue said he spent Christmas Day stuck at home, watching live security footage from his restaurant as four men smashed the door and dragged a cash register and safe into the snow. Helpless to stop them, he called police five times, he said, but they did not go to the scene. “This is killing me financially,” he said.

Anderson shared the video with The New York Times.

“We have already made a number of arrests, and we will be focusing very aggressively on following on the crime of looting during these blizzard conditions,” Brown said at a news conference.

The travel ban that was instated when the blizzard began remained in place for Buffalo on Tuesday, although it was reduced to an advisory in the nearby community of Cheektowaga, announced Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County executive.

The volume of snow, he wrote on Twitter, was impossible to plow. It had to be scooped up by dump trucks and carted away. The Buffalo Niagara International Airport and all county offices in Erie County remained closed Tuesday. The airport will reopen late Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced more support for people in western New York, including waiving ATM fees and increasing cash withdrawal limits, as well as measures to expedite insurance claims.

Amid the chaos of the storm, there were also moments of astounding grace.

On Christmas Eve, Sha’Kyra Aughtry found an older man crying and disoriented in the snow, according to videos Aughtry posted on Facebook. Her partner, whom she identified only as Trent, carried him into their home. They called emergency services, she said, but no help came.

The man — whom a friend identified as Joe White, 64, an intellectually disabled man who worked for 40 years at the North Park movie theater, in a GoFundMe account set up for his medical care — had become lost in the storm.

“When I found him he had bags frozen to his hands; I had to cut the bags off his hands because his hands had ice bricks.” Aughtry is seen on video telling rescuers who arrived on Christmas after she posted on Facebook desperately seeking medical attention for the man.

“I had to cut off his socks. I washed him up and fed him,” she added. The rescuers plowed her driveway and took White, who had severe frostbite, to the hospital.

She turned to him. “Come on, Joey, don’t cry. I’m here,” she said. “I’m your friend forever.”

On Sunday the marquee of North Side was lit up. “Thank You Sha’Kyra and Trent,” it read. “Get Well Soon Joe.”

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