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Officials in Buffalo, New York, face questions about storm planning and response as harrowing accounts emerge of death and survival

(CNN) — As authorities in Buffalo, New York, continue following up on hundreds of calls for help made during and since the historic weekend blizzard — a “grueling, gruesome task” that’s revealed people dead in cars and snowbanks — officials are facing tough questions about their handling of storm preparations and the disaster response.

The death toll in Erie County, New York, has climbed to 37, officials there said, while 25 others died across 11 US states as the winter storm plowed across most of the country, with most killed in traffic wrecks or by the bitter cold.

In hardest-hit Buffalo, a six-day driving ban lifted early Thursday as City Hall, grocery stores and other key services reopened. Most streets were passable by Wednesday evening after hundreds of pieces of equipment plowed and hauled snow that day, Mayor Byron Brown said.

“We still have a ways to go, but we have come a long way in just a couple of days,” he said.

Still, residents are bracing for what could be another weather headache: possible “minor/nuisance” flooding as the enormous volume of snow melts and rain is forecast Saturday, the National Weather Service said, adding basements could get inundated and creeks overflow. Pumps and sandbags are on standby, Gov. Kathy Hochul said, and the county has ample supplies and personnel to face flooding, its emergency services chief said.

Rising temperatures in New York’s second-most populous city also may uncover more storm victims, with officers due out again Thursday to search places in Buffalo where bodies were reported but not found, Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said. New York National Guard teams also are canvassing the city.

“It’s a grueling, gruesome task that they had to do,” Gramaglia said, noting his force has finished following up on some 1,100 backlogged welfare check and 911 calls. “They recovered a substantial amount of bodies, and it’s terrible.”

“The stories are heartbreaking, just heartbreaking,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. Among the dead are a senior home worker, a soon-to-be new dad and a grandmother whose body a stranger moved “so that she wouldn’t get snowed on anymore.”

Amid those and other devastating accounts, questions swelled Wednesday about the timing of Erie County’s driving ban — enacted at 9:30 a.m. Friday — and whether officials had discussed issuing it earlier.

Leaders started talking about a ban last Thursday, with the expectation a key snow band wouldn’t reach Erie County until 10 the next morning, Poloncarz said. Officials didn’t want to institute a ban before 7 a.m. so third-shift workers could get home before temperatures dropped below freezing, he said.

The cold set in “dramatically,” he said. “The snow really went from rain, to sleet, to snow in a matter of less than five minutes.”

Then Friday around 10 a.m. — after the ban was issued — whiteout conditions hit, he said.

“We thought we did it (set the ban) at the right time,” Poloncarz told CNN’s “The Situation Room” on Tuesday. “It’s quite apparent that some of the individuals who perished, perished after; it didn’t matter what time the travel ban was put in place.

“We can look back at it now and say, ‘Yeah, maybe we wish we had done it an hour or two beforehand.’ But in the end … the buck stops with me. … And if it wasn’t right, then I’m going to have to take responsibility for it.”

Poloncarz in turn on Wednesday criticized Buffalo’s mayor’s handling of storm cleanup efforts, saying Brown had not been on daily coordination calls with other municipalities and the city had been slow to reopen.

“I’m not concerned about those comments,” Brown told CNN. “My concern is for the residents of the city of Buffalo.”

Police have made 10 arrests in Buffalo in connection with suspected winter storm looting, Gramaglia said Wednesday. Overall, though, the community response to this deadly blizzard, he noted, has been typical of this so-called City of Good Neighbors.

Heartwarming tales of fellowship include a barbershop owner opening his chairs overnight to the storm-weary, a woman who took in a stranger and warmed his frostbitten hands, and a pair of doulas discovered online to help a snow-trapped couple deliver their new baby girl.

An expectant dad found dead in the snow

As it trudged across the United States, the winter storm snarled holiday travel, sapped electricity and inflicted untold grief on those who lost relatives and friends. Sixty-two storm-related deaths have been recorded: 38 in New York, nine in Ohio, three each in Kansas and Kentucky, two each in Colorado and South Carolina, and one each in Missouri, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin.

No place has seen more death than Erie County.

Expectant father Abdul Sharifu, 26, had left to get provisions Saturday morning for a family who’d asked for his help, his cousin Ally Sharifu told CNN. His wife — who is days away from giving birth — woke up that evening to find him gone.

After sharing his photo on Facebook, the family got a call about a man rushed to a children’s hospital after he was found lying on the street, said Ally Sharifu, who identified his cousin’s body at a hospital the next morning. The men were refugees from Congo who resettled in the US in 2017 after about five years in a Burundi refugee camp, he said.

Monique Alexander, 52, had rushed out of the house as conditions were worsening, saying she would be right back, her daughter Casey Maccarone said. Two hours later, when she had not returned, Maccarone asked on a Buffalo blizzard Facebook page if anyone had seen her mom, she said.

Minutes later, a stranger messaged her and asked to call her, Maccarone said. “He just instantly broke down crying,” she said. “He was stranded as well and he was walking down the street and he saw her in the snow. So, he picked her up and he placed her under the awning … so that she wouldn’t get snowed on anymore.”

“Her grandkids were waiting for her to come home,” she added. “We were waiting for her to come home.”

Senior home employee Anndel Taylor, 22, got trapped in her car in Buffalo over the holiday weekend, said relatives who had posted her location to a private, storm-related Facebook page when they couldn’t reach her. A man called to say he had found her without a pulse, her sister said.

And the body of Melissa Morrison, 46, a Buffalo mother of two, was found in the snow near a Tim Hortons Coffee House, said her mother Linda Addeo, who’d grown worried after her son read social media posts Friday about a body found near the shop near Morrison’s home. The coroner’s office on Tuesday confirmed to her family the body was Morrison’s, Addeo said.

Strangers open their homes and hearts

Alongside the horror and mourning, bright tales of humanity, too, have surfaced.

“In typical City of Good Neighbors fashion, people have come together — they’ve assisted each other,” Brown, the Buffalo mayor, said Wednesday. “Neighbors have helped neighbors. Friends have helped friends, and members of this community have helped people that they have never met before.”

As emergency services got restored, the New York National Guard made at least 86 rescues, including getting a woman to a hospital just before she gave birth, the force said.

A Buffalo barbershop owner opened his store for people to seek refuge from the storm. “A lot of people slept in the barber chairs, a lot of people put the chairs together,” Craig Elston said. “I was just thinking about just keeping people warm. It was really that simple.”

When Sha’Kyra Aughtry looked out her Buffalo window on Christmas Eve to find a frostbitten man calling for help, she got to work. After her boyfriend carried 64-year-old Joe White into the house, Aughtry melted ice off his red, blistered hands with a blow dryer, she said. When no one responded to her 911 call, her Facebook plea yielded good Samaritans with snowplows so Aughtry could get White to a hospital.

Social media also proved useful when Erica Thomas went into labor two days before Christmas as snow piled halfway up her front door in Buffalo, trapping her and her husband. Expectant dad Davon Thomas called 911, but, he later learned, first responders couldn’t get to them, he told CNN.

A post on a Buffalo Facebook group reached Raymonda Reynolds, a doula of five years, who with doula and nurse Iva Blackburn got on a video call with the couple and guided them through delivering the baby and cutting the umbilical cord.

“We started screaming like it was a Buffalo Bills touchdown,” Reynolds said, describing the moment the girl was born. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve been a part of.”