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Heavy snow plus rain could spell more trouble for Buffalo homeowners

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By Ray Sanchez and Steve Almasy
CNN

(CNN – Nov. 21, 2014) — The snowfall has largely subsided in the Buffalo area, but officials are warning people that the deadly weather emergency is not close to being over — especially with rain in the weekend forecast.

With up to 85 inches of snow having fallen in the area this week, a few roofs already had collapsed by Friday. But officials fear more collapses are on the way, thanks in part because the snow will soak up this weekend’s rain, Erie County, New York, Executive Mark Poloncarz told reporters Thursday.

“There’s going to be a warm-up on Saturday, there will probably not be a tremendous amount of melt on Saturday,” he said. “There will be a rain starting on Saturday that will not initially create a situation where the snow will melt, but it will actually act as a sponge. So the water that is falling will go into the snow pack and will actually act as a sponge until it finally starts releasing it.”

The National Weather Service forecasts light rain to begin Saturday and temperatures to warm. The major concern is flooding, but Poloncarz said the weight on buildings could cause some to collapse.

“There will be even extra weight because of the rain. So this emergency is not over,” he warned.

About 30 roofs collapsed from Thursday night into Friday morning, Erie County Deputy Executive Richard Tobe told reporters Friday morning.

At least 13 people have died in connection with the snowfall, Poloncarz said Friday. The latest to be counted was a 50-year-old man whose body was found in a vehicle in Cheektowaga, New York, he said.

The death toll also includes two senior citizens who died of natural causes after or while they were evacuated Thursday from a nursing home in Cheektowaga, Erie County officials said. Residents of the 184-bed Garden Gate Health Care Facility were evacuated because officials believed the roof was ready to collapse under several feet of snow.

Residents had reported wall cracks and a sagging ceiling.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the two residents’ deaths were related to the evacuation, but Erie County officials added those deaths to the 11 others this week connected to the snowfall.

And the storm forced the NFL to announce that Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets, scheduled to be played at the Bills’ Ralph Wilson Stadium, will take place at Detroit’s Ford Field on Monday night.

But even leaving the Buffalo area had its complications. Before meeting at the Bills’ stadium Friday morning to get on a bus to the airport, some of the players had to be picked up by snowmobile because of driving bans in certain areas, team spokesman Scott Berchtold said.

Seeking shelter

At the Winchester Volunteer Fire Company station on Harlem Street, as many as 40 people stranded in the snow have sought shelter since Tuesday. More than 6 feet of snow cover the streets. Abandoned cars are barely visible under the drifts.

Fire trucks can’t leave the station. Attempts by firefighters to get out in an SUV were futile. One medic hopped onto a snowmobile to rush to a call. Other volunteers jumped onto ATVs to reach a home where the roof was buckling under the weight of the snow.

Maria Odom’s two cats and a dog were rescued from the house.

“I’m ready for it to end,” Odom, 38, said of the extreme weather. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

At the fire station, driver Steve Randall’s truckload of milk and eggs has served as the main source of provisions. Randall said he was stuck in his truck for nearly five hours before making his way to the firehouse, where people have been sleeping on tables to stay off the cold floor.

“We’ve been eating like kings for a while, but now we’re running out of food,” he said. Firehouse occupants have been making quiche, served with milk and bread from a store across the street.

From the Tops grocery store nearby, people hauling bags of food headed out into the snow by foot. One man dragged groceries in a sled; another pulled his child through the snow in a laundry basket. Robert Mead embarked on a 5-mile trek to bring formula to his 9-month-old baby.

A year’s snowfall in three days?

In the 24 hours after the latest lake-effect storm started Wednesday night, more than 3 feet of snow fell in several areas near Buffalo.

In Wales Center, there was a new snowfall of 37 inches, according to a National Weather Service spotter.

Residents just stared out their windows at the mounds of white stuff, if they could see out at all.

In East Aurora, Lisa Gutekunst’s home was capped with more than 4 feet of snow, she said.

“The snow is coming down so hard you can’t see out the window,” she said earlier Thursday. “We’ve cleared our driveway so many times that we’ve run out of places to put the snow.”

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown announced a travel ban in south Buffalo for both cars and pedestrians from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., citing the safety of residents as heavy equipment moved around town.

If the forecast holds, more than a year’s worth of snow will have fallen in three days. In a typical year, Buffalo’s snowfall totals about 7 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

Extreme conditions lead to tragedy

The 10 other people who died included four who suffered cardiac issues while they shoveled snow and one who died in a car accident, Erie County officials reported. A man in his 60s had a heart attack while he tried to move a snow plow or a snow blower, said Tobe, the Erie County deputy executive.

Two residents, from Niagara and Erie counties, died of apparent exposure Wednesday night or Thursday morning, Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County health commissioner, said Thursday.

“They both had chronic illnesses,” she said. “They both had mental health issues, and were found outside either their home or a close friend’s home. They had probably been there overnight.”

In Alden, a 46-year-old man was found dead inside a car buried in 12 to 15 feet of snow. In Genesee County, Jack Boyce, a 56-year-old county employee, died after collapsing Tuesday morning while operating a snow blower outside the county sheriff’s office, according to County Manager Jay Gsell.

Brown and city officials recounted stories of rescuers trudging around snowdrifts as high as houses to get people to hospitals, and police officers delivering special baby formula to a pair of infants.

College football game canceled

A Wednesday night football game between the University of Buffalo and Kent State was canceled because of the weather.

The National Football League announced it would move Sunday’s Buffalo Bills game from Ralph Wilson Stadium, which was buried in an estimated 220,000 tons of snow.

The NFL statement said the contest will be played Monday night at 7 ET at Ford Field, which in 2010 played host to a Minnesota Vikings game after the roof of their stadium collapsed because of snow accumulation.

Moving the game back a day will help the Bills, who haven’t been able to practice this week.

The team had been offering tickets to the game and $10 an hour to anyone willing to help remove the snow. Now it is offering refunds to fans who purchased tickets through the team.

CNN’s Alexandra Field, Leigh Remizowski, Ashley Fantz, Jason Hanna, Ed Payne, Marcus Hooper, Martin Savidge, Catherine E. Shoichet and Jill Martin contributed to this report.