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Millions in the U.S. are expected to be affected by what is shaping up to be the worst storm ahead of the Christmas holiday in decades.
Many across the country are under winter storm watches, advisories and warnings, as well as wind chill alerts. The large weather system is expected to bring potentially life-threatening cold and strong winds, with a high likelihood of travel chaos and possible outages.
What to know
- A strong arctic cold front is set to begin moving south into the central Plains on Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
- A developing low-pressure system is forecast to strengthen by Thursday night over eastern Michigan, deepening record cold temperatures for the Gulf Coast and the Eastern U.S. by Friday.
- The severe weather is expected to cause travel chaos and power outages across the U.S.
Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois to face winter blast Thursday
Green Bay, Wisconsin; St. Louis; and Chicago could be among the major cities most affected Thursday by a freezing winter storm that is blanketing large parts of the country, according to forecasters.
Memphis, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas, could get rain and snow Thursday afternoon and evening, and Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City could get heavy rain, according to NBC News’ Climate Unit.
Freezing temperatures have already been felt farther west. Snow began falling in Minnesota on Wednesday. From 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, there were more than 200 vehicle crashes and 189 spinouts, the State Patrol said. There were no deaths.
More than 59 million people, including most of Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota east to parts of Ohio, were under winter storm warnings Wednesday night, according to the National Weather Service.
Another 7 million were under blizzard warnings, and wind chill warnings covered 57 million people, as far west as Washington state and including Texas and Tennessee, according to the agency. A low of 11 degrees was forecast for Fort Worth, Texas, on Thursday. The wind chill will make it feel worse.
Airlines have pledged to waive change fees or to take other steps to help passengers in anticipation of travel disruptions.
More than 100 cars are stuck in South Dakota, authorities say
Authorities in South Dakota were helping more than 100 drivers who were stranded when an arctic front blasted the region with subzero temperatures and blizzard-like conditions, officials said.
The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office said the motorists were stuck between Rapid City and Wall. It told drivers to stay in their vehicles and call 911.
The South Dakota Highway Patrol and Pennington County Emergency Management were assisting in the effort, the sheriff’s office said.
Earlier, authorities closed Interstate 90, which connects the two cities, citing deteriorating conditions.
The National Weather Service’s office in Rapid City said a record low of minus 18 degrees was set Wednesday, beating out a previous record of minus 17, recorded in 1924. With the wind chill, the agency said, there were widespread temperatures in the region of minus 40 to minus 60.
With arctic storm blast approaching, migrants in Texas are sleeping on the streets
EL PASO, Texas — The nation began readying for an arctic storm that could send temperatures around the country plunging, but on the southern border many migrants said they didn’t know they were in for colder, nastier weather.
Grisleida, who migrated from Venezuela and declined to give her last name, waited on the sidewalk with her young children, ages 8 and 6, near the Greyhound station. She crossed the border Monday with her husband, but he has been deported to Mexico.
She has been sleeping at a shelter where she tries to arrive early each evening to get a spot inside. She has no money or cellphone or any other way of communicating with her husband.
El Paso’s forecast calls for temperatures to drop to the low 20s Thursday.
“I didn’t know about the cold,” she said when she was asked her plans for the approaching colder weather. She and her children wore light winter clothes.
Weather expected to delay bus, rail customers
Bus and train passengers were also preparing for cancellations and delays due to the winter storm.
As of late Wednesday, Amtrak had canceled train service on around 30 routes, some through Sunday.
Greyhound canceled bus service on 25 routes for Wednesday and Thursday, including service from Las Vegas to Denver, Denver to St. Louis and Chicago to Minneapolis and Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee.
Southwestern Missouri to see wind chills not felt since 1989
The wind chill in the area of Springfield, Missouri, is expected to be down to minus-35 degrees in this winter storm, which hasn’t happened in more than 30 years, a National Weather Service official said.
The dangerous and life-threatening wind chills are expected starting Thursday night and Friday morning, but conditions will deteriorate Thursday, Shelby Melto, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Springfield, said in a video Wednesday.
Wind chills that low were last recorded at Springfield’s airport in 1989, she said.
While snow is forecast to be 5 inches or less, blowing snow and reduced visibility will lead to “near-blizzard conditions,” Melto said.
Hundreds of flights in Denver and Chicago are canceled
More than 220 flights out of Chicago’s two airports and 130 from Denver scheduled for Thursday have been canceled as much of the country was suffering or preparing for a major winter storm.
Denver was in the throes of an arctic blast Wednesday evening, with temperatures dropping more than 30 degrees in one hour.
There were 130 flights out of Denver International Airport scheduled for Thursday that had been canceled as of Wednesday night, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware.
In Chicago, 159 flights scheduled to depart O’Hare International Airport and 66 scheduled for Midway Airport on Thursday had been canceled, according to the website.
There were also 317 delays and 68 cancellations in Denver on Wednesday, according to FlightAware. The arctic front is forecast to hit the Chicago area Thursday, the National Weather Service said.
There were also 192 flights scheduled to arrive at O'Hare on Thursday that had been canceled as of Wednesday night, as well as 88 scheduled to arrive at Midway and 125 scheduled to arrive at Denver, according to FlightAware.
Temperatures in Denver drop 37 degrees in one hour
The mercury in Denver dropped from 42 degrees to just 5 degrees in around an hour Wednesday as an artic front moved in, officials said.
The temperature dropped 37 degrees at Denver International Airport from around 3:53 p.m. to 4:54 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.
The weather service had warned in a tweet: “Brace yourselves Denver, here comes the front!” and it said a drop of more than 30 degrees in one hour was possible.
“It is because of the arctic front,” said Victoria Chavez, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder. “It’s not an everyday occurrence — that would be awful.”
200-mile stretch of South Dakota interstate to close because of blizzard
More than 200 miles of Interstate 90 in South Dakota will close Wednesday because of snow, high winds and “blizzard-like conditions,” the state Transportation Department said.
The interstate, which runs east and west, will be closed in both directions from Chamberlain to Rapid City starting Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT, the agency said. An expected reopening date was not given.
Other roads are also closed. “Many secondary highways are currently listed as impassable due to high winds, drifting and blowing snow, and low visibility associated with this winter storm system,” the department said in a news release.
Wind chill warnings covered all of South Dakota — including many other states — and blizzard warnings covered a large part of the state, including near Rapid City, on Wednesday afternoon.
Upstate N.Y. to get ‘once-in-a-generation storm’
Upstate New York and the Buffalo region could get a “once-in-a-generation storm” with wind gusts over 60 mph Thursday and Friday, the National Weather Service said.
The first round of wind will hit east of Lake Ontario, where Watertown and Fort Drum are located, overnight Thursday into Friday morning, the weather agency said. The second will affect the Buffalo area and Niagara Falls on Friday and Saturday.
“Winds could gust over 65 mph, leading to at LEAST scattered power outages, if not widespread outages,” the weather service tweeted.
It was only last month that areas south of Buffalo got around 6 feet of snow in a lake-effect storm.
In this storm, temperatures will plummet, resulting in a flash freeze Friday and snow in the Buffalo area, forecasters said.
Cities across U.S. open warming shelters
The Denver Office of Emergency Management transformed the Denver Coliseum into a 24-hour warming center starting Wednesday afternoon. Recreation centers and libraries will also remain open during regular operating hours and function as warming centers on Thursday and Friday.
The Seattle region is opening warming centers across King County, including overnight shelters for families experiencing homelessness. Several area colleges and schools closed Tuesday because of inclement weather.
In Houston, which experienced a deep freeze last year that knocked out power for millions of customers, city shelters will open Thursday ahead of a storm that could make temperatures feel as cold as 2 degrees, according to the city’s Office of Emergency Management.
Airline carriers waive change fees
Airlines are advising passengers to anticipate disruptions and consider alternative travel plans if possible amid the winter storm.
United Airlines, American Airlines and JetBlue have all issued travel alerts and are waiving change fees depending on dates and destinationss.
American Airlines will waive change fees for trips to and from nearly 30 destinations Thursday through Saturday.
JetBlue will waive change fees and fare differences for customers traveling Thursday and Friday to parts of the Northeast and the Midwest. Customers can rebook their flights for travel through Sunday.
Delta Airlines will not charge for changes to flights to and from the Midwest, the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest.
Spirit customers in the Northeast can change flights for free for travel from Wednesday to Friday, while Midwest passengers can do the same if they are booked to fly Thursday through Saturday.
Southwest Airlines is offering waiver codes for flights scheduled through Monday throughout much of the country.
And United customers traveling Wednesday through Sunday can rebook flights through next Wednesday.
Dangerously cold weather forces school districts to cancel classes
Winter break will start early for many students as schools throughout the country cancel classes because of extreme cold and blizzard-like conditions.
In Colorado, public schools in Denver, Cherry Creek, Littleton and Brighton will close Thursday and all activities have been called off as below-zero high temperatures and minus-40-degree wind chills are expected.
Classes for students in some school districts, including Cherry Creek and Brighton, will not resume until after the new year.
In Minnesota, where highs are in the single digits and blizzard conditions are expected through the weekend, Rochester Public Schools and Mason City schools will be closed Thursday.
Chicago public school students will be required to attend classes Thursday, but all after-school activities are canceled, according to the district.
Wind chill below zero expected for much of the U.S.
Much of the country will be hit with wind chills well below zero degrees this week, according to the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.
Parts of the Midwest could even get wind chills below minus-40 degrees.
Wind chill refers to what the air temperature feels like on exposed human skin because of the combination of cold temperatures and wind speeds. Wind chill far below zero can cause frostbite within minutes.
Photos: Icy conditions at the airport in Minneapolis
Georgia governor is the latest to declare a state of emergency
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency Wednesday in preparation for the winter storm to help ensure that essential supplies can be delivered.
"Communities across the state are about to see temperatures that they haven’t experienced in a decade or more, and we just want to urge all Georgians to be ready," he said at a news briefing.
A flash freeze is expected in the northern part of Georgia overnight Thursday into Friday, with temperatures dropping quickly from the 40s to an expected low of 19 degrees.
Kemp is the latest governor to declare a state of emergency. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued an emergency order earlier Wednesday, and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared one Tuesday. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, meanwhile, signed an executive order Tuesday night activating the National Guard and the state's emergency operations plan.
Chicago residents traveling on the roads risk getting stranded in 'dangerous' conditions, officials warn
Chicago residents who will take to the road ahead of the Christmas weekend could get stranded in harsh weather, including extreme winds and single-digit temperatures, a National Weather Service forecaster told reporters Wednesday.
Mike Bardou, who works for the weather service's Chicago office, said in a briefing that he was "very concerned about travel outside the city," adding that conditions in Indiana and Michigan in particular seemed "especially dangerous."
Texas governor vows that power grid 'will remain up and running'
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reassured residents of his state that the power grid will "remain up and running very robustly during this very cold snap."
Parts of Texas are expected to experience abnormally frigid temperatures Thursday and Friday. The National Weather Service forecast for the Dallas-Forth Worth area warns of "dangerously cold" conditions with wind chills as low as minus 15 degrees. In the Austin-San Antonio area, the agency expects temperatures in the low teens, with "wind chills as low as the single digits below 0."
At a news briefing, Abbott acknowledged that residents may have concerns following the disastrous blackout last year that left millions of people in the dark for days during subfreezing temperatures. More than 200 people died, some from carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to stay warm. Others froze to death.
Peter Lake, chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, echoed the governor's assurances, saying that the grid is "ready and reliable."
"We expect to have sufficient generation to meet demand throughout this entire winter weather event," he said. "We have more power available than ever before."
What is a bomb cyclone?
The winter storm is expected to become a bomb cyclone, a term that simply refers to a storm that intensifies very rapidly. Bomb cyclones form when air near Earth’s surface rises quickly in the atmosphere, triggering a sudden drop in barometric pressure — at least 24 millibars within 24 hours.
As the air rises, wind spirals in at the base of the storm. As long as the air continues to rise at the top of the storm faster than it can be replaced at the bottom, barometric pressure will continue to drop. As with a hurricane, lower air pressure yields a stronger storm.
“All bomb cyclones are not hurricanes,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. “But sometimes, they can take on characteristics that make them look an awful lot like hurricanes, with very strong winds, heavy precipitation and well-defined eye-like features in the middle.”
Kentucky governor declares a state of emergency
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency Wednesday, warning residents to prepare for dangerous conditions.
"This is going to be really dangerous. This is really, really cold. You need to stay inside and hunker down, hopefully with your family, for the Christmas holiday from Thursday definitely through Saturday," he said at a news briefing.
Wind gusts are likely to reach 40-50 mph, Beshear said, adding that a major concern is the possibility of a flash freeze as temperatures drop quickly Thursday night. He recommended that everyone traveling for the holidays plan to arrive at their destinations by midday Thursday.
"After tornadoes and floods, pandemics, multiple ice storms, just these last three years, I don’t want to lose one person to this arctic front that is coming through," he said.
In preparation for the severe weather, every county in Kentucky is opening at least one warming center, Beshear said, and the state's National Guard is ready to assist.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an emergency order for his state ahead of the storm Tuesday.
Coastal flooding expected along parts of the Atlantic coast and Lake Michigan
The giant weather system is expected to cause flooding along the southeastern side of Lake Michigan, with waves up to 20 feet that could encase homes near the lake's edge in ice. Weather forecasters also predict moderate to major coastal flooding along parts of the Atlantic coast during high tide Friday morning, particularly around Long Island and southern New England.
Additionally, heavy rain may raise the threat of isolated flash floods in areas of northeast New England and New York City.
Nearly 800 flights to and out of the U.S. delayed ahead of storm
Nearly 800 flights to and out of the United States have been delayed as of Wednesday morning, according to FlightAware. There were 221 cancellations too.
The interruption comes ahead of major travel days that weather forecasters say will be heavily impacted by a massive storm system.
Shipping companies brace for harsh weather with ‘contingency plans’ to help gifts arrive on time
Satish Jindel, the founder and president of ShipMatrix Inc., which tracks the shipping industry and its efficiency, said carriers such as Amazon, FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service will be shipping on average a combined 100 million packages a day this week leading up to Christmas.
“That’s a lot of packages moving all across the country,” he said.
Jindel said about 70 million packages are shipped in a typical day in the fall.
UPS, FedEx, Amazon and the Postal Service said in statements that their workers are ready.
Cities open warming shelters and warn residents to prepare for dangerously cold temperatures
Cities throughout the country are opening warming centers this week, including Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Denver could see its coldest day in 32 years, and officials are advising residents to avoid being outside for extended periods, the National Weather Service tweeted Tuesday.
In Houston, which experienced a deep freeze in 2021 that knocked out power for millions of residents, officials said they hoped this year would not be a repeat.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees about 90% of Texas’ energy production, said changes have been made since then to increase grid reliability and resiliency.
Ensure outdoor animals, livestock have sufficient shelter, officials warn
The severe weather this week could pose a threat not just to humans, but also to outdoor animals and livestock, officials have warned.
The National Weather Service has warned people to try to stay out of the cold, but also to ensure animals have sufficient shelter.
"Prepare now for extreme cold and ensure outdoor animals and livestock have sufficient shelter," it said.
Prepare for 'considerable travel impacts,' National Weather Service warns
People across the country should be prepared for "considerable travel impacts" as an arctic cold front moves in this week, the National Weather Service has warned.
It also warned that the impact of the cold could be increased if any power outages occur during the winter storm.
Power outages likely
The extreme weather over the coming days is likely to bring power outages across the country.
Peak power outages could be at least into the hundreds of thousands by Saturday morning. Line crews will likely end up spending the holiday weekend attempting to get power back on in minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit wind chills.
The areas of greatest concern for power outages are southern Michigan, northern Indiana, northern Ohio, northeast Pennsylvania and eastern New York.
The National Weather Service has warned that scattered power outages are possible by Friday.
Winter storm to bring far-reaching travel chaos
The coming winter storm is expected to bring far-reaching travel chaos across the United States.
Besides the blizzard, heavy rain and high winds are expected to impact the Northeast starting Thursday and into Friday.
The flash freeze that the cold air could usher in as the rain ends is a major concern. A flash freeze, in which temperatures quickly drop below freezing, can be dangerous for wet roadways. Roads and sidewalks risk becoming ice sheets and could remain that way until road crews can treat them.
The areas of greatest concern for flash freezes are Ohio, Pennsylvania and western New York. There is also a chance the New York City area experiences a flash freeze during rush hour Friday. It will be a close call if the roads dry out in time before temperatures drop below freezing.
Millions of people under winter storm warnings
Millions of people in the United States are under winter storm warnings ahead of what could be the worst pre-Christmas storm in decades.
Many across the country are under winter storm watches, advisories and warnings, while millions are also under wind chill alerts, with the storm expected to bring potentially life-threatening cold to parts of the U.S.