Intense US storm kills 28, knocks out power and cancels flights

More than 200 million people under travel warnings across the US

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An intense winter storm has battered large sections of the US killing at least 28 people, knocking out power to almost one million people, and closing roads and airports.

The “bomb cyclone” storm, one of the fiercest in decades, forced the cancellation of 2,300 US flights on Saturday and delayed 5,300 more, adding to the Friday’s misery which saw almost 6,000 flights grounded.

At least 28 weather-related deaths have been confirmed across eight states as heavy snow, howling winds and dangerously frigid temperatures kept much of the nation in a frozen grip for a third straight day.

Across the six New England states, more than 273,000 customers remained with no power on Saturday, and in North Carolina there were another 169,000 customers without power. At its peak there had been about 1.6 million homes and businesses without power from Texas to New England.

Road ice and whiteout conditions forced the closure of some of the nation's busiest transport routes, including the cross-country Interstate 70, parts of which were temporarily shut down in Colorado and Kansas.

The National Weather Service warned about lethal conditions and urged residents in affected areas to remain indoors.

Buffalo has seen 196cm (77 inches) of snowfall in part of the city from Thursday. EPA

Temperatures are forecast to top out on Saturday at just -13ºC (7ºF) in Pittsburgh, the National Weather Service (NWS) said. The storm unleashed its full fury on Buffalo, with hurricane-force winds and snow causing whiteout conditions, paralysing emergency response efforts and shutting down the airport until Monday, according to officials.

200 million threatened

Christmas holiday plans were thrown into disarray for millions on Friday as a historic deadly winter storm wrapped most of the country in bone-chilling temperatures and unleashed heavy blizzards that grounded flights and sparked widespread power cuts.

More than 200 million people — about 60 per cent of the US population — were under some form of winter weather advisory or warning, the National Weather Service said. The cold came just as people were readying for the holiday weekend and preparing to visit loved ones across the country. At Denver airport, temperatures fell to -31°C.

The weather service’s map “depicts one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever,” forecasters said in a statement on Friday.

Passenger rail service was also affected, Amtrak reported.

More than 1.2 million homes and businesses were without power as of Friday evening, according to the PowerOutage.us tracker.

The huge storm stretched from border to border. In Canada, WestJet cancelled all flights Friday at Toronto Pearson International Airport, beginning at 9am.

In Mexico, migrants waited near the US border in unusually cold temperatures as they awaited a US 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 on Thursday in the Oval Office after a briefing from federal officials. “This is serious stuff.”

In the Midwestern city of Cincinnati, Ohio temperatures plunged to below -17°C and the city got more than 13 centimetres of snow overnight.

Treacherous road conditions caused multiple crashes overnight, including a lorry fire near the major Brent Spence Bridge.

TJ Mobilio, a Cincinnati-area cab driver said prices had gone up for those brave enough to work in the snowy conditions.

“In my little ride-share world, prices are going to be extremely expensive and this is an opportunity to make some really good money,” he told The National.

“The flip side is running your car in this weather may damage it and not be able to work the rest of the year … so few drivers want to drive in such dangerous conditions to themselves and their cars. This means we’re actually taking a hit financially at a crucial time when we’re used to making good Christmas holiday money.”

Forecasters expected the bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm — to develop near the Great Lakes. That stirred up blizzard conditions, including heavy winds and snow.

Among those with cancelled flights was Ashley Sherrod, who planned to fly from Nashville, Tennessee, to Flint, Michigan, on Thursday afternoon. Ms Sherrod told the Associated Press she was debating whether to drive or risk booking a Saturday flight that she worries will be cancelled.

“My family is calling, they want me home for Christmas, but they want me to be safe, too,” said Ms Sherrod, whose bag — including the Grinch pyjamas she was planning to wear to a family party — was packed and ready by the door.

“Christmas is starting to, for lack of a better word, suck.”

— With additional reporting by AP

Updated: December 25, 2022, 1:01 PM