Massive winter storm brings frigid temps, icy weather and thousands of flight cancellations, snarling Christmas travel
Tens of millions of Americans endured bone-chilling temperatures, blizzard conditions, power outages, flash flooding and canceled holiday plans from a winter storm that forecasters said was nearly unprecedented in its scope, exposing about 60% of the U.S. population to some sort of winter weather advisory or warning just days before Christmas.
So far, at least 19 deaths related to the storm have been confirmed across the country. Of those, eight people died in weather-related crashes in Ohio, state highway patrol confirmed to CBS News Friday night, including four who were killed in a multi-car pileup involving around 50 vehicles on the Ohio Turnpike.
Near whiteout conditions were reported in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, while flash flooding inundated communities across several Northeast states and downed power lines in others.
On Saturday morning, New York State Police tweeted a warning regarding hazardous conditions on the roads. Another tweet mentioned that police were searching for dozens of stranded drivers.
"STAY OFF THE ROADS! Search and rescue is going extremely slow due to the blizzard. Roads were not maintained last night due to zero visibility," they tweeted.
More than 200 million people were under a winter weather advisory or warning on Friday, the National Weather Service said. The weather service's map "depicts one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever," forecasters said.
More than 5,800 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were canceled by Friday night, according to the tracking site FlightAware, causing more mayhem as travelers try to make it home for the holidays.
As of Saturday morning, power outages left more than a million homes and businesses in the dark, according to the website PowerOutage.us, which tracks utility reports. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest public utility, ended its rolling blackouts Friday afternoon but continued to urge homes and businesses to conserve power. In Georgia, hundreds of people in Atlanta and northern parts of the state were without power and facing the possibility of sub-zero wind chills without heat.
In Buffalo, New York, the National Weather Service reported "zero mile" visibility and posted a video showing the whiteout conditions. The regional transportation authority said all flights at the Buffalo airport were canceled through Friday night.
Thousands of people were without power across Erie County. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced late Friday that 54 National Guard members were being deployed to Erie County "to assists residents, particularly those who have emergency medical appointments and need help traveling."
Calling it a "kitchen sink storm," Hochul declared a state of emergency. During a Saturday briefing, Hochul announced that the Buffalo airport would close until at least 11 a.m. Monday.
In parts of New York City, tidal flooding inundated roads, homes and businesses.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown urged people to stay home, and the NHL postponed the Buffalo Sabres' home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Forecasters say a bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm — developed near the Great Lakes, stirring up blizzard-like conditions, including heavy winds and snow. Blizzard warnings were in effect through Saturday for the Great Lakes.
"Some of the coldest air we've felt in a longtime in the Northeast will happen tomorrow (Saturday) morning, with temperatures feeling like they're below zero," Weather Channel meteorologist Chris Warren said.
The area could see 2 to 4 feet of snow through the weekend, National Weather Service meteorologist Richard Otto said. It comes just over a month after the area was pummeled by a storm that dumped a record 6 feet of snow in some areas.
Denver, also no stranger to winter storms, was the coldest it has been in 32 years on Thursday, when the temperature dropped to minus 24 in the morning at the airport.
The huge storm stretched from border to border and beyond. In Canada, WestJet canceled all flights Friday at Toronto Pearson International Airport, beginning at 9 a.m. And in Mexico, migrants waited near the U.S. border in unusually cold temperatures as they awaited a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether and when to lift pandemic-era restrictions that prevent many from seeking asylum.
"This is not like a snow day when you were a kid," President Joe Biden warned Thursday in the Oval Office after a briefing from federal officials. "This is serious stuff."
Storm flooding exacerbated by heavy winds inundated roads, homes and businesses in parts of New York City.
In Howard Beach, Queens, police officers trudged through knee-deep water to pull stranded motorists to safety in the morning.
In Rockaway Beach, Queens, bystander video posted by the Rockaway Times showed a man wading past submerged cars and debris to rescue a child from a flooded ground-floor apartment.
The city's emergency management commissioner said the new moon, high tide and offshore winds made the flooding more severe.
Commissioner Zachary Iscol said fierce winds pushed water into New York Harbor and Jamaica Bay, adding about 3 feet to the mean tide flood surge.
The police department stationed emergency services trucks and other high-axle vehicles in flood-prone areas to facilitate rescues, Iscol said.
"They did do a number of rescues this morning," Iscol said. "None of them were life-threatening. Most of them were folks who were trapped in vehicles."
Long Island also got hit hard by rain, with enough water flooding the streets in some places to lift parked cars off the ground and cascade into basements.
"This is a difficult weather event. We needed to prepare not only for rain, but also tidal flooding that was made worse by the new moon, in addition to large amounts of wind offshore that was piling water into New York Harbor, in addition to Jamaica Bay, adding about three [feet] above mean tide flood surge," said Zachary Iscol, New York City's Emergency Management Commissioner.
The "next phase," he warned, "is going to be a precipitous drop in temperature, going down to the low teens, single digits over the weekend."
At least one person had to be rescued from a vehicle stranded in icy waters in Wells, Maine.
"Please avoid the coastal roads right now," tweeted the Wells Police Department, sharing video of crashing waves and flooding.
The cold also led to a high demand at homeless shelters, including in Detroit, where some shelters were at capacity Thursday as the temperature plummeted to single digits with negative windchills.
"We are not sending anyone back into this cold," Aisha Morrell-Ferguson, a spokeswoman for COTS, a family-only shelter, told The Detroit News.
In Chicago, the Arctic blast brought below-zero temperatures with wind chills as low as minus 30 expected overnight, CBS Chicago reported. High temperatures Saturday won't get out of the teens.
Emergency weather shelters in Portland, Oregon, called for volunteers amid high demand and staffing issues. An unprecedented number of people were seeking shelter in a region where thousands live outside, and many staff members were unable to make it to their shifts because of dangerous road conditions or illness, officials said.
Nearly 800 people slept at the city's five emergency shelters on Thursday night, said Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, spokesperson for Multnomah County, which is home to Portland.
"The largest number of people that I've ever seen have come into shelter," she said. "We are trying to get more support. We have the experts in charge, but this is for helping folks with meals, wheelchairs, getting them to the right spot."
The frigid air was moving through the central United States to the east, with wind chill advisories affecting about 135 million people over the coming days, National Weather Service meteorologist Ashton Robinson Cook said Thursday. Places like Des Moines, Iowa, will feel like minus 37 degrees, making it possible to suffer frostbite in less than five minutes.
As the storm sweeps the nation, a shortage of snowplow operators is impacting states from Oregon to Ohio, with transportation officials blaming low wages and a tight labor market. The shortfall could make roads less safe.
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