A wild winter storm continued to envelop much of the US on Saturday, bringing blinding blizzards, freezing rain, flooding and intense cold close to record lows in some areas. More than a dozen deaths were attributed to the storm, if not confirmed, and holiday travel and utility services stood disrupted for millions.
Forecasters said the weather system, called a “bomb cyclone” or “bombogenesis”, was caused by a volatile collision of cold, dry air from the north and a warm, moist airmass from the south.
Although meteorologists are wary of assigning any individual weather event to climate change, a wobble in the jet stream induced by climate change conforms to previous extreme weather events, both hot and cold.
For many Americans, the system, which has pushed down to states as far south as Texas, promised the coldest Christmas Eve for decades. The storm, named Elliot, downed power lines, littered highways with deadly accidents and led to mass flight cancellations.
The storm was nearly unprecedented in scope, stretching 2,000 miles from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. About 60% of the US population faced winter weather advisories or warnings, and temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rockies to the Appalachians, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.
Freezing rain coated much of the Pacific north-west in ice, while the north-east faced coastal and inland flooding followed by rapid freezing that brought black ice to roadways. About 28 million people were under winter storm warnings on Saturday, and 7 million under blizzard warnings.
The frigid temperatures and gusty winds were expected to produce “dangerously cold wind chills across much of the central and eastern US this holiday weekend”, the NWS said, adding that the conditions “will create a potentially life-threatening hazard for travelers that become stranded”.
“In some areas, being outdoors could lead to frostbite in minutes,” it said.
Adding to the woes were power outages that by late Friday were affecting more than a million homes and businesses, according to the PowerOutage website. That number was down from an estimated 1.5 million a day earlier. In Maine, 250,000 were without power. Across Canada, the number reached 500,000, with Quebec hardest hit.
Millions of Americans traveling ahead of Christmas were affected, with 7,423 flights delayed and 3,426 cancelled within, into or out of the US, according to the tracking site FlightAware.
Multiple highways were closed, and crashes claimed at least six lives, officials said. Four people died in a massive pile-up involving 50 vehicles on the Ohio Turnpike. A driver in Kansas City, Missouri, was killed on Thursday after skidding into a creek, and three others died on Wednesday in separate crashes on Kansas roads.
In Canada, WestJet canceled all flights at Pearson airport in Toronto, as meteorologists warned of a potential once-in-a-decade weather event. In Mexico, migrants camped near the US border in unusually cold temperatures as they awaited a supreme court decision on pandemic-era restrictions that stop many seeking asylum.
In South Dakota, the governor, Kristi Noem, announced an expansion of a state national guard mission to assist the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux tribes with firewood and to clear snow blown into drifts as high as 12ft.
“We have families that are way out there that we haven’t heard from in two weeks,” said Wayne Boyd, chief of staff to the Rosebud Sioux president.
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Harlie Young was huddled with five children and her father around a wood stove as snow drifts blocked the house.
“We’re just trying to look on the bright side that they’re still coming and they didn’t forget us,” she said.
Rare freeze warnings were issued for large parts of Florida. The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warned that near-freezing temperatures could cause green iguanas to go into “torpor” and fall from trees.
Across the breadth of the storm, activists were rushing to get homeless people out of the cold. Nearly 170 adults and children were keeping warm in Detroit at a shelter and a warming center designed to hold 100 people.
“This is a lot of extra people” but it wasn’t an option to turn anyone away, said Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services, which runs both facilities.
Emergency shelters in Portland, Oregon, called for volunteers amid high demand and staffing issues as snow, freezing rain, ice and frigid temperatures descended.
In New York, governor Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency, calling the winter weather onslaught a “kitchen sink storm”. In parts of New York City, tidal flooding inundated roads, homes and businesses.
In Buffalo, a city accustomed to winter weather and heavy snowfalls, wind gusts reached 70mph. They were expected to decrease on Saturday, though “blizzard conditions continue with within lake snow bands”, according to the NWS.