Roughly two-thirds of America is under warnings or advisories for Storm Elliott as the historic polar vortex tightens its grip across the country on Friday.
More than 200 million people are facing subzero temperatures – in some places as low as -40C. This will be 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 several years of pandemic restrictions and worries.
Blizzards, whiteouts, rapid ice-overs 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. The National Weather Service described it as “one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever”.
Major sections of highway were closed as public officials pleaded with citizens to rethink holiday plans and stay home. On Friday, injuries were reported from a pile-up on Interstate 94 near Benton Harbor, Michigan, when visibility dropped to one-eighth of a mile. The east-west highway is a major route through northern US states.
“This is not like a snow day when you were a kid. This is serious stuff,” president Joe Biden said on Thursday, noting that he was planning to send his staff home early before the weather deteriorated.
More than 3,000 flights were cancelled in the US on Friday and delays topped 14,000 planes. Major transit hubs in New York, Chicago, Washington, Denver, Minneapolis and Detroit were just a few of those impacted.
At Seattle-Tacoma airport in Washington, operations went down to one runway after the rest were closed indefinitely due to icy conditions.
At least six people have been killed in what some forecasters described as a “once in a generation” weather system blasting in from the Arctic.
Fatal car crashes were confirmed by the Weather Channel in Nebraska, Kansas and Kentucky on Friday. Oklahoma officials also reported three road deaths.
More than 1.18 million people are without power in states across the country from Texas to Connecticut, according to the utility tracker poweroutage.us.
While western states, the Midwest and parts of the south and plains are in the grips of brutal conditions, more is still to come for the East Coast as the holiday weekend begins and the development of a so-called “bomb cyclone” becomes more likely.
Due to the Arctic front, temperatures have been able to drop more than 20 degrees in an hour or less, creating serious risk of frostbite or hypothermia for those exposed.
Weather service meteorologist Ashton Robinson Cook told The Associated Press that places like Des Moines, Iowa, will feel like -37C, making it possible to suffer frostbite in less than five minutes.
In addition to the very cold temperatures, high winds in the wake of the frost will produce dangerous wind chill readings across nearly all of the central to eastern US, the NWS reported.
Kentucky governor Andy Beshear described the conditions as “really, really dangerous” as he declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm.
“After tornadoes and floods, pandemics and multiple ice storms just in these last three years, I don’t want to lose one person to this Arctic front that is coming through,” Governor Beshear said.
More than 181 million Americans are under wind chill warnings or advisories, over 11 million under blizzard warnings, and over 500,000 for ice storm warnings.