A large of swath of the U.S. braced Tuesday for a dangerous mix of below-freezing temperatures, howling winds and blizzard conditions scheduled to arrive on the first day of winter and disrupt plans for millions of holiday travelers.
The blast of wintry weather will descend upon the Plains and upper Midwest on Wednesday, then blow toward Appalachia and the East Coast. Authorities across the country are worried about the potential for power outages and warned people to take precautions to protect the elderly, the homeless and livestock — and, if possible, to postpone travel.
The northern-most regions of the U.S. could see wind chills approaching 70 degrees below zero (minus 57 Celsius) in the coming days.
Even warm-weather states are preparing for the worst. Texas officials are hoping to avoid a repeat of the February 2021 storm that left millions without power, some for several days. Temperatures were expected to dip to near freezing as far south as central Florida by the weekend, raising worries about the homeless.
The drop in temperatures will be precipitous. In Denver, the high on Wednesday will be around 50 degrees (10 degrees Celsius); by Thursday, it is forecast to plummet to around zero (minus 18 Celsius).
The heaviest snow is expected in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, according to the National Weather Service, and frigid wind will be fierce across the country’s mid-section.
“I would not be surprised if there are lots of delays due to wind and also a lot of delays due to the snow,” said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland.
Flights nationwide were generally on schedule by midday Tuesday, but not in Seattle. A combination of snow, rain and low visibility caused nearly 200 flight cancellations at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Tuesday morning. Greyhound cancelled bus service between Seattle and Spokane, Washington, due to winter weather.
In Oregon, one person died Tuesday in an accident on Interstate 84 near Rooster Rock State Park when a semi-truck collided with their SUV. Police said the thin layer of ice on the highway may have been a contributing factor.
Nearly 113 million Americans were expected to travel 50 miles or more from home this holiday season, up 4% from last year but still short of the record 119 million in 2019, according to AAA. Most were planning to travel by car; around 6% were planning to fly.
Several inches of snow were expected from Chicago through the Great Lakes region by Friday. Snow also was forecast in the lower Midwest. With the storm approaching, Delta, American, United and Southwest airlines said they were waiving change fees for people at airports impacted by bad weather.
Snow and near-record cold temperatures had Montana under a winter storm warning. The National Weather Service predicted wind-chill levels that could approach 60 degrees below zero (minus 51 Celsius) by Thursday morning. Exposed skin could be frostbitten in a matter of minutes.
Almost impossibly, the forecast was even worse for parts of Wyoming. The 1,500-resident town of Lusk could see wind chills of 70 degrees below zero (minus 57 Celsius.) The National Weather Service’s Cheyenne office said the temperature and wind chill Wednesday night into Thursday “features some of the most extreme values you will ever see!”
“Please take precautions: Check on elderly/vulnerable, protect pets, shelter livestock, cover exposed skin!” the service said on Twitter.
Karina Jones’ family raises about 400 head of cattle in north-central Nebraska near Broken Bow, where wind chills as low as 50 below zero (minus 46 Celsius) are expected Thursday and Friday mornings. She said Nebraska cattle ranchers are “a hearty bunch,” but the bitter cold is rough.
Ranchers “lie awake at night praying that you did everything you could for your livestock,” Jones said.
In Kansas, where up to 4 inches of snow is expected to accompany wind chills dipping to 40 degrees below zero (minus 40 Celsius), Shawn Tiffany runs three feedlots with about 35,000 cattle combined. He’s worried about keeping 40 employees safe and warm.
“Every conversation I’ve had for the last four days has consisted of ‘Are you prepared and are you ready?’ Everybody is taking it very seriously,” Tiffany said.
In Texas, where the temperature is expected to drop to around 11 degrees (minus 12 Celsius), the bitter cold was expected to be another test for the state’s power grid.
A historic freeze in February 2021 led to one of the biggest power outages in U.S. history, knocking out electricity to 4 million customers in Texas and leading to hundreds of deaths.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid, said last week it expects to have sufficient generation to meet anticipated electricity demand during this week’s winter blast. The council said it has implemented reforms to increase reliability, including bringing more generation online sooner if needed and purchasing more reserve power.
But a report on the power grid that ERCOT published last month said that Texans could still face possible power outages this winter if an extreme storm prompted very high demand for electricity.
The frigid weather offers another hurdle to the homeless. In Kansas City, Missouri, emergency shelters are opening for anyone needing warmth, food or safety. Organizers warn, though, that capacity is limited overnight.
“We’re going to get in as many as we can,” said Karl Ploeger, chief development officer for City Union Mission, a Christian nonprofit.
If the shelters are over-capacity at night, the mission works with other organizations to try and find alternatives spaces for people.
“If we’re full and some other sources are full, they are going to have to figure out how to keep themselves warm. We try to avoid that, we don’t want that to happen, especially in the dangerous conditions,” Ploeger said.
Northern Florida cities such as Tallahassee see temperatures in the low 20s (minus 3 Celsius) on Friday, Christmas Eve and Christmas nights. The forecast calls for temperatures to drop to near freezing as far south as Tampa.
Lozano reported from Houston and Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska. Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon, Julie Walker in New York, Jeff Martin in Atlanta, Jill Zeman Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit and Amy Hanson in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.