Governors in at least five states declared emergencies Thursday in anticipation of an arctic blast that threatens 32 million people in the South and the Midwest with snow, ice and bone-chilling temperatures plummeting by as much as 50 degrees.
An ice storm stretching from Texas through Arkansas, the boot heel of Missouri and parts of Tennessee and Kentucky could weigh down power lines and snap tree branches with a half-inch or more of ice, forecasters warned.
"Just prepare, plan and hunker down once this starts later tonight," said Tom Niziol, a winter weather expert for The Weather Channel.
Kevin Roth, a lead meteorologist at the network, said the region faced a "good 12 to 14 hours of freezing rain and ice" as cold air mass pushing south from Canada collides with moisture streaming up from the Gulf of Mexico.
Emergencies were declared in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas in anticipation of what's coming, allow state agencies to streamline their disaster responses and speed up acquisition of resources for recovery.
In Oklahoma, the declaration also activates a law that prohibits price-gouging on necessities.
"We have seen a few cases of price gouging and fraudulent claims in the past, so consumers need to be alert," Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a statement.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent staff to the state without even being asked because of the state's history of ice storms.
"Based on our previous disasters in Oklahoma, especially ice storms, we know we need to pre-stage to support the state whenever they need a request for generators or power," Robert Ross, a FEMA disaster official, told NBC station KJRH of Tulsa.
Farther north and west, people faced extreme cold and snow. Temperatures could dip to minus-20 or worse in the northern midsection of the country, forecasters said. Snow totals could also approach 3 feet in northeastern Minnesota, where the weather has contributed to hundreds of traffic collisions around the state.
Residents and shopkeepers busily shoveled sidewalks front of their buildings in Bemidji, N.D., which has gotten 18 inches of snow since Tuesday.
"I can't say I'm terribly thrilled about it. It's a lot," Nikki Miller told NBC station KVLY of Fargo. "But I guess it's a white Christmas."
Colorado homeless shelters went on emergency status, with expected to remain below 20 through next week and as much as 30 inches of snow was expected in the mountains.
Denver police Officer Rob Parks was hiking the city's streets looking for homeless people he could direct to the shelters, particularly those with mental health issues or drug or alcohol addictions.
"Whatever [it] is that's going on with them that day, if they're in crisis and they're caught out, those are the ones that just can't seem to help themselves. and so we're certainly looking for them," Parks told NBC station KUSA of Denver.
But Parks said he feared some weren't going to survive despite his best efforts.
"If people aren't seeking shelter over the next couple of days, there's a strong chance that we may have one or two or more that actually freeze on the street," he said.
Parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, meanwhile, were also expecting near 3 feet of snow — pushing some Rocky Mountain ski resorts past 100 inches for the season.
The wintry mess will push into the Middle Atlantic and the Northeast on Sunday, likely leaving a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain to complicate things before the Monday morning rush in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.
"The I-81 corridor in Virginia through Maryland could see significant impacts," said Niziol of The Weather Channel.
First published December 5 2013, 7:41 PM