A severe winter storm has cut off power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across the United States and killed at least 18 people caused by exposure and car accidents on icy roads.
The “bomb cyclone,” one of the strongest storms in decades, also led to the cancellation of more than 3,000 US flights on Saturday, leaving thousands of travelers who stormed at the last minute at Christmas.
The storm, which has now struck for the third time in a row, was almost unprecedented in its magnitude and extended from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. The falling temperatures gave some parts of the country, including Washington, DC, the coldest Christmas Eve on record.
Energy systems in the USA came under pressure due to rising heating demand and storm-related damage to transmission lines.
According to tracking website PowerOutage.us, at least 300,000 homes and businesses were without power as of Saturday evening, a sharp drop from 1.8 million customers who were without power earlier in the day.
However, many electric companies continued to ask people to save energy by not running large appliances and turning off lights that they do not need.
Across the country, officials attributed at least 18 deaths to the storm’s impact, including two people who died in their homes outside the city of Buffalo in New York State when emergency workers were unable to reach them in historic blizzard conditions.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said a third person also died in Buffalo and that the blizzard could be “the worst storm in the history of our community.”
A trip to hospital in areas where a vehicle could get through the snow would take over three hours, he said, adding that “hundreds of people were still stuck in their vehicles.”
He added that the National Guard would be sent “directly to the city of Buffalo for these life-threatening rescues.”
Recent view from Werhle Dr. of one of our Concord trucks that support our Harlem district. Please stay off the roads as there is still a driving ban across the country! Stranded vehicles make these awful conditions even more difficult for our crews! pic.twitter.com/4ngTVkp35P
— Erie County DPW (@ErieCountyDPW) December 24, 2022
New York Governor Kathy Hochul, meanwhile, said that almost every fire truck in Buffalo was stranded due to the snow. “No matter how many emergency vehicles we have, they can’t survive the conditions we’re talking in,” she said.
Other deaths related to storms include four people who were killed in a mass pile-up involving around 50 vehicles in the state of Ohio on Friday. In Missouri, a driver was killed on Thursday after he slid into a stream, while in Kansas, three more died in various accidents on icy roads on Wednesday.
A utility worker was killed in Ohio on Friday trying to restore power, while a woman in Vermont died in hospital the same day when a tree broke and fell on her in high winds. In Colorado, police found the body of a person who appeared homeless when temperatures fell below zero and snow fell in the region. In Michigan, a snowplow driver found an 82-year-old woman curled up in the snow in front of her assisted living community. She was later pronounced dead.
Three deaths were also reported in Kentucky, where Governor Andy Beshear warned residents on Saturday: “Stay home, stay safe, stay alive.”
“I know it’s really hard because it’s Christmas Eve. But we have dozens and dozens of accidents,” he said in an online briefing. “It is simply not certain.”
On Interstate 71 in Kentucky, Terry Henderson and her husband Rick told the Associated Press that they were stuck in a huge traffic jam caused by multiple accidents for 34 hours. The truck drivers survived the wait on an oil rig equipped with a diesel heater, a toilet, and a refrigerator, but still regretted driving from Alabama to their home near Akron, Ohio, for Christmas.
“I wish we should have stayed,” Terry Henderson said after they moved again on Saturday. “We should’ve sat down.”
According to tracking website FlightAware, the storm also resulted in the cancellation of around 3,411 flights within, to or from the USA on Saturday. While in Mexico, refugees and migrants camped near the US border in abnormally cold temperatures while awaiting a US Supreme Court ruling on pandemic-era restrictions that prevent many from seeking asylum.
The National Weather Service said its map of existing or impending meteorological hazards “shows one of the largest levels of winter weather warnings and warnings of all time.”
In hard-hit Buffalo, Latricia Stroud said she and her two daughters, 1 and 12, have been stranded in their house since Friday afternoon without heat or electricity and the snow is too deep to leave.
“I have to go across a snowbank to get out,” Stroud told AP. “There is a heating center, I just need a ride to get there.”