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US freezes in its coldest Christmas in memory as 1.6m without power, thousands stranded and 17 dead

Thousands of flights were cancelled across the country in recent days and some airports forced to shut

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Saturday 24 December 2022 22:24 GMT
US: Winter Storm Elliot Intensified Into Bomb Cyclone Bringing Blizzard Conditions To Midwest

America is facing its coldest Christmas in living memory as swathes of the country suffer ice storms, whiteouts and ferocious subzero winds.

At least 17 people have died in multi-vehicle pileups on perilous roads and from medical emergencies after first responders struggled in Storm Elliott’s blizzard conditions.

More than 200 million people were facing extreme cold – with the temperature dropping as low as -40C in some places. It was accompanied by dangerous winds, and blinding, heavy snowfall at a time when many families were planning a return to a somewhat normal festive season after pandemic restrictions and separations.

The National Weather Service described it as “one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever”.

On the travel front, tens of thousands of people are stranded after thousands of flights were cancelled across the country in recent days, and some airports were forced to shut completely.

Follow the latest updates on Winter Storm Elliott on The Independent’s live blog.

Tens of millions of people on the east coast were also facing the holidays with the threat of rolling blackouts after grid operations ran into trouble from the frigid conditions. On Saturday, 1.6 million customers in states from Texas to Connecticut were without power.

New York governor Kathy Hochul described the snowstorm hitting western parts of the state as “one of the worst in history” and declared a state of emergency, adding that almost every fire truck in Buffalo was stranded and stuck in snow as of Saturday morning.

She noted how the storm was impacting the state of New York was a “very clear” sign of climate change.

Four people died in a 46-vehicle pileup on the Ohio turnpike on Friday in freezing conditions (Ohio State Highway Patrol )

Four people died in a 46-vehicle pile-up in whiteout conditions on the Ohio Turnpike on Friday. A Kansas City, Missouri, driver was killed on Thursday after skidding into a creek, and three others died on Wednesday in separate crashes on icy northern Kansas roads. Other road fatalities were confirmed in Kentucky and Oklahoma.

A woman in Vermont died in a hospital on Friday after a tree broke in the high winds and fell on her house. Police in Colorado Springs said they found the dead body of a person who appeared to be homeless as subzero temperatures and snow descended upon the region.

Airline cancellations topped 5,700 US flights on Friday followed by another 2,100 on Saturday as blizzards, whiteouts, icy rain and freezing, powerful winds stretched from the Canadian border south to the Rio Grande, Gulf Coast and central Florida, and from the Pacific Northwest to the Eastern Seaboard.

Airports in New York, Atlanta and Denver were among the most heavily impacted. In Chicago, 500 flight cancellations had left travellers sleeping in terminals. Only one runway was open at Seattle-Tacoma airport in Washington, leading to heavy delays.

On the east coast, a major grid operator asked its 65 million customers to reduce electricity use as power plants struggle in the subzero conditions.

Pennsylvania-based PJM Interconnection asked the public to cut back until the morning of 25 December as frigid temperatures, heavy snow and howling winds continue to sweep the country.

Households were being asked to lower thermostats, postpone using major appliances and turn off non-essential lights and appliances and commercial and industrial power users were also asked to make reductions.

Utility officials said simultaneous increased demand across its electric system came as some power plants are having difficulty operating in the extreme cold. They warned of rolling blackouts.

“It’ll be short-lived, we’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but it is a real possibility,” said Mike Bryson, PJM’s senior vice president for operations. It covers all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington DC.

Tens of thousands are in blackouts in Tennessee, Maine, Alabama, and New York. Officials in Texas rushed to reassure households that its standalone grid would hold up after it collapsed during a brutal freeze in February 2021 and 200 people died.

Across the six New England states, almost 400,000 electric customers remained without power on Saturday morning, with some utilities warning it could be days before power is restored.

Officials in Jackson, Mississippi, said the city’s water system, which partially collapsed in late August, was experiencing “fluctuating” pressure on Saturday afternoon amid frigid temperatures.

Amtrak trains also cancelled services throughout the Christmas period. The severe weather prompted authorities across the country to open warming centers in libraries and police stations while scrambling to expand temporary shelter for the homeless. The challenge was compounded by an influx of migrants crossing the US southern border by the thousands in recent weeks.

The storm is nearly unprecedented in its scope, stretching from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. About two-thirds of the US population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, the National Weather Service said.

Freezing rain coated much of the Pacific Northwest in a layer of ice, while people in the northeast faced the threat of coastal and inland flooding.

The frigid temperatures and gusty winds were expected to produce “dangerously cold wind chills across much of the central and eastern US this holiday weekend,” the weather service said, adding that the conditions “will create a potentially life-threatening hazard for travellers that become stranded”.

Studies suggest that abnormally strong cold spells – like this one – may become more likely, Climate Nexus reports. Rapid warming in the Arctic (along with accompanying losses of sea ice and spring snow cover) due to climate change appears to be playing a role in disrupting the polar vortex high up in a part of the atmosphere, creating more opportunities for cold air to dive south.

Associated Press contributed to this article

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