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A sprawling winter storm pummeled a large swath of the United States on Monday, delivering heavy snowfall and icy conditions as temperatures plunged well below freezing.
The coast-to-coast storm has knocked out power for several million people across the country. Ice-slicked roads have led to highway pileups and sent eighteen-wheelers careening off the pavement.
The National Weather Service said early Monday that at least 150 million Americans were under ice or winter weather advisories. As the storm continued to intensify, officials urged residents to brace themselves.
“The time to prepare for this storm was yesterday,” the National Weather Service in Texas said in an ominous warning issued on Sunday.
More than 120 accidents were reported on roads overnight in Houston, including a 10-vehicle tangle on Interstate 45. In Oklahoma, a crash northeast of Oklahoma City led to several semi trucks catching fire, the authorities said.
The storm, which brought record low temperatures in Minnesota and dumped 11 inches of snow in Seattle, is now barraging parts of the country that are far less familiar with the worst of winter.
“This will be probably more snow over a larger swath of land to a higher degree than ever before in Texas history,” Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said at a news conference. Even the state’s Gulf Coast was put under freeze warnings. Both the state and the federal government have issued disaster declarations for all 254 counties in Texas because of the weather; President Biden approved the federal declaration on Sunday.
The conditions stem from a strong high pressure system that has moved down from the Arctic Circle, bringing some of the lowest temperatures that parts of the country have experienced in years, said Michael J. Ventrice, a meteorological scientist with IBM.
The collision between the Arctic high and warmer, wetter air to the south was producing “a very impactful winter storm” that would stretch from Texas and Louisiana all the way up to the Northeast, he said.
The temperatures in the middle of the country are expected to approach record lows. In Oklahoma City, the temperature on Tuesday is forecast to be minus 9 degrees; the record low of minus 17 degrees was set in 1899.
Temperatures in parts of Oklahoma were 40 degrees lower than usual for this time of year, the National Weather Service said. The duration of the cold conditions is also unusual: Oklahoma may experience nine consecutive days of temperatures below 20 degrees, the Weather Service said.
“This could be one of the most costly natural disasters of the year,” said Judah Cohen, the director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a company that provides information to clients about weather and climate-related risk. “Texas, which is known for hurricanes, is not known for snow and cold damage” such as burst water pipes, he said, and “it’s not in spite of climate change, but related to climate change.”
In Texas, Austin was locked down for the worst winter storm in a generation. Tree branches laden with icicles bowed toward the ground. Parked cars were covered by sheets of ice. The city with palm trees and typically mild weather braced for possibly more than five inches of snow, an amount not seen since 1966.
The parking lot at a grocery store in San Antonio was full as shoppers grabbed last-minute items before the market closed four hours early.
For Zoe Waldron, 30, the polar vortex and gray sky made her nostalgic for La Conner, Wash., her hometown. But in San Antonio? “It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime event,” she said.
Millions of homes and businesses across the country were without electricity early Monday because of the destructive band of snow and ice that was forecast to extend for more than 2,000 miles.
With more than one-third of Americans under winter storm warnings, utility companies from Texas to the Northeast were bracing for more widespread power losses as the storm progressed.
In Texas, at least two million customers had lost power, according to PowerOutage.us, which aggregates data from utilities across the United States. Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston said on Twitter that city residents whose lights had gone out may be without electricity all day. He said he had lost power at his own home.
Some of the outages were intentionally imposed, and could last throughout the morning, as utilities struggled to alleviate strain on the power grid after the weather forced some generating units offline, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said.
Elsewhere, about 300,000 customers in Oregon and 150,000 in Virginia were also without electricity.
Portions of the Lower Mississippi, Tennessee and Lower Ohio Valleys could get as much as half an inch of ice on Monday, snapping cables and tree branches. Southeastern Texas could receive more than one-tenth of an inch of freezing rain, the National Weather Service said.
In Middle Tennessee, Nashville Electric Service urged its 418,000 customers to charge cellphones and other electronic devices as the storm moved into the area on Sunday night. The utility also advised them to prepare emergency kits, flashlights and batteries.
“It’s the freezing rain that’s the largest concern,” Sylvia Smith, a spokeswoman for the utility, said in an interview on Sunday night.
Ms. Smith said that the utility had a full complement of employees ready to respond to downed power lines and that it had contract crews on standby. She noted that efforts to restore power overnight could be hampered by black ice.
“When you have these types of conditions, we have to ensure that it is safe for us to do the work,” she said.
It is the latest test for Nashville Electric Service during the coronavirus pandemic. In March, a tornado hit the utility’s service area, and in May, 125,000 customers lost power during an unusually powerful group of storms known as a derecho, Ms. Smith said.
“Nashville has had some extreme weather events this past year,” she said.
A low of 12 degrees and a few inches of snow would not be unusual for mid-February in plenty of American cities. But in San Antonio, it’s unheard-of.
“People don’t feel safe going out,” said George Osorio, 29, the front desk manager at the O’Brien Hotel near the city’s Riverwalk. “San Antonians are not used to this weather. We have guests from Wisconsin, and they find it funny, because this is warm for them.”
The path of the winter storm sweeping across the country includes many places where the worst of winter usually comes as a glancing blow, meaning that the storm is punishing them with a surprising intensity.
In Mississippi, officials told residents that they would probably need to stay off the roads at least until Tuesday. They cautioned that the local authorities there were not as well equipped for the wintry conditions as those in Northern states are.
“We have some plows on our trucks, but it’s not the kind like you have up North that is really designed to put weight on that plow and dig down and get it off of the roadway,” said Melinda McGrath, the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation. “We do not invest in those, because this only occurs like once every five years or so.”
The Gulf Coast in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi is quite familiar with brutal weather in the form of hurricanes, floods and thick summer heat. But single-digit temperatures and ice-slicked roads are something entirely different.
For many, the weather over the weekend rekindled memories of an ice storm in 1997 that was among the worst on record in parts of Texas and Louisiana. That storm snapped trees, damaged and destroyed homes and knocked out power for days, leaving residents to bundle up without heat.
Rural areas have been hit hard by the weather and the power outages it is causing. In Gillespie County, about 75 miles west of Austin, some households haven’t had electricity since Thursday, when ice and freezing rain first began to pelt the region. In addition to losing heat, lights, and energy for cooking, many rural homes have also been left without water, since electricity is needed to operate the wells they depend on.
Denise Britt of Cedar Park, an Austin suburb, said her elderly parents live in Gillespie County and were among those whose homes were left totally powerless. They decided to take their chances on the icy roads and drive 15 miles to Fredericksburg, she said, to take refuge in a hotel. After their car skidded into a ditch, a neighbor gave them a lift the rest of the way.
“They’re in dire straits out there,” Ms. Britt said of her parents’ rural county. “It’s an historic winter storm, nothing anybody is prepared for.”
Rick Rojas, James Dobbins, Sarah Fowler and
The notion that the global phenomenon of a hotter planet could be sending a shocking cold wave into the southern United States might seem nonsensical. And every cold snap can be counted on to elicit quips and stunts from those who deny the science of climate change.
But the weather patterns that send freezing air from the polar vortex plunging all the way to the Gulf Coast could, like other forms of extreme weather, be linked to global warming — which is why the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe prefers the phrase “global weirding.”
Winter storms are influenced by many factors, including the natural variability that affects all weather systems. The planet’s warming could be part of that icy blend, even while climate change is making winters milder over all.
The air that usually sits over the Arctic is now sweeping down South because of changes to the jet stream, the high-level air current that circles the Northern Hemisphere and usually holds back the frigid polar vortex.
There is research suggesting that Arctic warming is weakening the jet stream, allowing the cold air to escape to the south, especially when a blast of additional warming strikes the stratosphere and deforms the vortex. The result can be episodes of plunging temperatures, even in places that rarely get nipped by frost.
Of course, bitter cold from the polar vortex has long been a part of the North American weather picture. Dr. Amy Butler, a research scientist at the NOAA Chemical Sciences Laboratory, has said that she has yet to find any long-term trend in polar vortex disruptions, which “occur naturally even in the absence of climate change.”
But Judah Cohen, the director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a company that provides information to clients about weather and climate-related risk, has identified general trends in winter storms. He was an author of a paper last year in the journal Nature Climate Change that found a sharp increase in Northeast winter storms over the decade from 2008 to 2018.
“Severe winter weather is much more frequent when the Arctic is warmest,” Dr. Cohen said, adding, “It’s not in spite of climate change, but related to climate change.”
The current storm “could be one of the most costly natural disasters of the year,” he said, in part because of its unusual geography: “Texas, which is known for hurricanes, is not known for snow and cold damage” like burst water pipes.
Before last week, Texas wasn’t much known for dangerous winter weather, or for being well practiced at coping with it. More than 120 accidents were reported on slick roads in and around Houston Sunday night.
Still, some Texans have been embracing the shock of snow, ice and frigid temperatures with the kind of gusto that could only come from the Lone Star State.
“Oh — medium-rare is the way to go,” said Ryan Villanueva, 20 of Weslaco, in the Rio Grande Valley, who shared his wintry grilling technique on Twitter. “If it’s more than well or well done, that’s a piece of rubber.”
Mr. Villanueva was describing the four 1½-inch rib-eye steaks he had just grilled on his barbecue as snow fell all around him Sunday night. “I wanted to cook something nice for my family.”
Starting the fire in the cold was not easy. “It’s a little bit of trouble trying to get it started, because the wind is blowing, you’re there with trembling hands and cold matches that are damp for whatever reason,” he recalled. Mr. Villanueva finally got the fire going with the help of some odorless charcoal lighter fluid. The end result: “It was very good.”
“Lady Bird did not like it,” Victoria Martinez, 26, said of her cat’s response to the snow. But Lady Bird’s partner, LBJ, “wanted to run around the yard,” she said.
“Their personalities are complete opposites,” said Ms. Martinez, who plans to study marriage and family therapy.
Christoph Schittko was in uptown Dallas on Sunday, on his way to a park to go sledding with his wife and son, when a car, and then two skiers, passed them. Mr. Schittko’s reaction: “I was laughing out loud.”
Ian Camfield, a radio broadcaster originally from England, posted a picture of the outdoor swimming pool at his apartment complex in Dallas.
He has a podcast about how much he loves America, and the cold weather has brought inquiries from back home. Mr. Camfield said he had been called by radio stations and friends, asking for dispatches about the snow in Texas. “I think they’re just fascinated with it,” he said.
The purest expression of delight may have come from Maeven Evans, 19 of Lewisville, Texas, about 30 minutes north of Dallas. In a short video, Ms. Evans smiles and lip-syncs the lyrics to a song: “It’s just water.”
“I picked that song,” she said, “because in Texas, if the meteorologist says snow, it usually turns into water.”
This time, it was snow — but it wasn’t the kind you could pack into snowballs, Ms. Evans discovered. No matter: She and her roommate used large plastic container lids to fling the stuff onto one another — a snowball fight without snowballs.
“Just make do with what you have,” she advised her neighbors. “There is no telling when we’ll get snow like this.”
More snow is expected Monday.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Cold weather and the nation’s homeless crisis have long been a fatal mix that community advocates and public officials have struggled to address. But this winter, the coronavirus has added a dangerous new complication as cities and community groups wrestle with how to shelter members of a vulnerable population from the elements while not exposing them to an airborne virus that spreads most easily indoors.
The calculation has taken on greater urgency in recent days as arctic weather freezes a large swath of the middle of the country, from Minnesota to Texas, with wind chills expected to dip as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit in some places.
Officials in Ramsey County, Minn., which includes St. Paul, have set up shelters in a vacant hospital and a vacant seminary dormitory so that they can better distance homeless residents from one another.
Chicago officials have used former school buildings as well as Salvation Army and Y.M.C.A. locations to give service providers more space for shelter beds.
New Life Center, a nonprofit rescue mission in Fargo, N.D., outfitted an abandoned warehouse to expand its shelter capacity.
And in Kansas City, where the forecast calls for a low of minus 14 degrees on Monday, officials have converted the downtown convention center — the size of eight football fields — into a shelter.
With public spaces like libraries and the dining rooms of many fast food restaurants closed, people experiencing homelessness have fewer places to warm up during the day or use the bathroom. Traditional shelters have had to reduce their capacity for social distancing.
Kansas City typically spends $1.5 million a year on homeless services, according to a city spokesman. But this year, with the help of federal relief funds, it plans to spend $8.5 million on programs that include paying for hotel rooms to house families and providing financial assistance to prevent evictions.
At the urging of local activists, city officials opened a temporary shelter, with a capacity of 65 people, at a community center in mid-January. The number who showed up quickly exceeded that, and city leaders had a difficult call to make.
“We made a collective decision to say, ‘Look, if any one of these people had to spend the night in the street, it’s likely a death sentence,’” said Brian Platt, the city manager. “If they come inside and there’s a possibility of spreading or catching the Covid virus, there’s a greater chance that they could live through that.”
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