Over 4,400 flights have been cancelled over a two-day period as a powerful winter storm hits the United States, coinciding with the start of a holiday season that some predict could be the busiest ever.
Forecasters are warning of a bomb cyclone that will pack heavy snow and wind while sending temperatures plummeting 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of hours.
The frigid air was moving through the central United States to the east, with windchill advisories affecting about 135 million people over the coming days, 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.
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.
More than 2,350 US flights had been cancelled Thursday and another 2,120 flights for Friday were scrapped, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, while passenger railroad
Amtrak cancelled dozens of trains through Christmas, disrupting holiday travel for tens of thousands. Another 8,450 flights were delayed Thursday – including more than one-third of those operated by American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. Southwest cancelled 865 flights Thursday, about one-fifth of all its scheduled flights, and had already scrapped another
550 for Friday.
The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that the winter storm was bringing blizzard conditions to the Midwest, with major travel disruptions expected in Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Delta Air Lines, which had cancelled 140 flights Thursday out of 4,400 and 90 on Friday per FlightAware, warned “additional cancellations will be necessary Friday as the storm continues to impact operations in Detroit and the Northeast.”
“As of 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday (0030 GMT), 25% of departing flights at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and 37% of flights at Chicago Midway were cancelled, while 27% of departing Denver flights had been cancelled. Amtrak said it was cancelling several dozen scheduled train trips in the Midwest through Christmas because of the weather conditions, including trains in Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri and trains between New York and Chicago.
Brandon Mattis, 24, was at New York’s La Guardia Airport seeking to get to Atlanta, Georgia, to join the rest of his family for Christmas celebrations. His flight had been cancelled, he said.
“We’re trying to search on our phones. Figure out other routes. Maybe even taking a bus from here to Atlanta, which it’ll take us about 21 hours. So, that’s really inconvenient. But anything we can do just to get there (is) what we’re going to do.”
In the seven days ending Wednesday, the Transportation Security Administration said it screened nearly 16.2 million passengers, slightly below the 16.5 million screened in the same period in 2019, pre-COVID pandemic. Last year’s holiday period was marred by an outbreak of COVID-19 among staff that forced airlines to cancel thousands of flights. US airlines said earlier this week they were waiving change fees and fare differences for passengers in a range of affected areas.
A bomb cyclone
Forecasters are expecting a bomb cyclone when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm to develop near the Great Lakes, which will increase winds and create blizzard conditions, weather service meteorologist Ashton Robinson Cook said.
In South Dakota, Rosebud Sioux Tribe emergency manager Robert Oliver said tribal authorities have been working to clear roads to deliver propane and fire wood to homes, but face a relentless wind that has created drifts over 10 feet in some places.
This weather and the amount of equipment we have — we don’t have enough, Oliver said, noting that rescues of people stranded in their homes had to be halted early Thursday when the hydraulic fluid in heavy equipment froze amid a 41 below zero windchill.
In Texas, temperatures were expected to quickly plummet Thursday, but state leaders promised there wouldn’t be a repeat of the February 2021 storm that overwhelmed the state’s power grid and was blamed for hundreds of deaths.
The cold weather extended to El Paso and across the border into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where migrants have been camping outside or filling shelters as they await a decision on whether the US will lift restrictions that have prevented many from seeking asylum.
Elsewhere in the US, authorities worried about the potential for power failures and warned people to take precautions to protect older and homeless people and livestock and, if possible, to postpone travel. Some utilities were urging customers to turn down theirs thermostats to conserve energy.
This event could be life-threatening if you are stranded,” according to an online post by the National Weather Service in Minnesota, where transportation and patrol officials reported dozens of crashes and vehicles off the road.
And in Portland, officials opened four emergency shelters after declaring a state of emergency because of severe cold.
In Montana, temperatures fell as low as 50 below zero (minus 46 Celsius) at Elk Park, a mountain pass on the Continental Divide. Schools and several ski areas announced closures, and several thousand people lost power.
Near Big Sandy, Montana, rancher Rich Roth said he wasn’t too concerned about his 3,500 pregnant cows weathering the cold snap, saying they’re pretty dang resilient animals” and are acclimated to the weather.
In famously snowy Buffalo, New York, forecasters predicted a once-in-a-generation storm” because of heavy lake-effect snow, wind gusts as high as 65 mph (105 kph), whiteouts and the potential for extensive power outages. Mayor Byron Brown urged people to stay home, and the NHL postponed the Buffalo Sabres’ home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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 (minus 31 Celsius) in the morning at the airport.
In Charleston, South Carolina, a coastal flood warning was in effect Thursday. The area, a popular tourist destination for its mild winters, braced for strong winds and freezing temperatures.
The wintry weather extended into Canada, causing delays and cancellations earlier in the week at Vancouver International Airport. A major winter storm was expected Friday into Saturday in Toronto, where wind gusts as high as 60 mph (100 kph) were predicted to cause blowing snow and limited visibility, Environment Canada said.
(With inputs from Reuters and AP)