As snow ends in Buffalo, flooding and roof collapses are new threats; 12 deaths reported

Associated Press

A snowfall that brought huge drifts and closed roads in the Buffalo area finally ended Friday, yet residents still couldn't breathe easy, as the looming threat of rain and higher temperatures through the weekend and beyond raised the possibility of floods and more roofs collapsing under the heavy loads.

More than 30 major roof collapses, most involving farm and flat-roof buildings, were reported overnight, officials said Friday, after snow Thursday brought the Buffalo area's three-day total to an epic 7 feet or more. Little or no snow was expected on Friday, and the forecast called for a chance of rain on Saturday and more through Monday, along with temperatures of about 60 degrees.

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As towns and villages began preparing for potential flooding, homeowners and store employees around the region climbed onto roofs to shovel off the snow and reduce the danger of collapse.

"Five hours yesterday and that's just the beginning," John Normile said Friday of the effort to clear snow from the roof of his Lake View ranch-style home. He, along with his daughter and her boyfriend, had knocked about 6 feet off the back of the house and planned to be back at it for a second day.

"We're getting really concerned about the weight of it," Normile said. "We've got to do it before the rain comes."

The storms were blamed for at least 12 deaths in western New York, mostly from heart attacks and exposure. The most recent victims were two elderly residents of a nursing home that was evacuated amid concerns of a roof collapse, Deputy Erie County Executive Richard Tobe said Friday.

"We know that relocating people from nursing homes is a very tough thing to do," Tobe said.

More than 50 people were evacuated from several mobile home parks in suburban Cheektowaga and West Seneca on Thursday because roofs were buckling. Tobe said at least 90 small roof collapses involving carports and other structures had been reported by Friday morning, in addition to damage to a pharmacy and a metal warehouse operated by a Christmas decorations company, where damage was estimated in the millions.

Some farm animals had been injured in damaged barns, he said.

With roads impassable, driving bans in effect and the Buffalo Bills' stadium buried in snow, the NFL decided to move the Bills' Sunday home game against the New York Jets to Monday night in Detroit.

National Guardsmen drove nurses to their hospital shifts. State troopers helped elderly residents trapped in their homes. State officials assembled 463 plows, 129 loaders and 40 dump trucks from across the state for a massive cleanup effort.

Some Buffalo-area schools were closed for the fourth day, burning through snow days with winter still a month away.

A stretch of the New York State Thruway through western New York remained closed, with more than 300 truckers idled at truck stops and service areas, waiting for the highway to reopen.

With deliveries interrupted, some grocery stores reported running low on staples like bread and milk.

"No matter how you cut it, this event will end up in the top five for the Lake Erie area," said National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini.

On Friday, cities and towns were positioning pumps and other equipment in anticipation of widespread flooding. The worst is expected Monday when, with temperatures at or above 60, snow is expected to melt faster than it can be absorbed by the ground or snowpack.

"There's roughly the equivalent of six inches of rain in the snowpack that will essentially be released over two days," Tobe said. "If it was released as rain it would be a monumental storm."

But flooding will likely affect mostly basements and creeks, he said. "It's not going to be this giant flooding like you see in hurricanes," he said.

Even for the Buffalo area — one of the snowiest and hardiest places in America — this was one for the history books. The three-day total is close to the nearly 8 feet that the region typically gets over an entire year.

Because the Buffalo area is so snowy, building codes require homes and businesses to be able to handle up to 50 pounds per square foot on their roofs, which would be about as heavy as a slab of concrete 4 inches thick, according to Mark Bajorek, a structural engineer.

As anyone who has ever shoveled snow knows, its weight depends in part on how wet or fluffy it is, not just on how deep it is. But Bajorek said some buildings may be close to that limit now, with more precipitation on the way.

Engineers were expected to be out Friday trying to determine how much water was in the snowpack.

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Associated Press writers Michael Hill and Mary Esch contributed from Albany.