Thousands of flights have been canceled and millions are without power across the US as record-breaking winter storms blanket much of the country. More than 150 million people are facing winter storm warnings, according to the National Weather Service, in an area covering 25 states between Texas and Maine, and heavy snows are expected at least through Tuesday. Blackouts have stretched as far as Mexico.
The barrage of icy weather has already canceled more than 3500 flights, and shut down both of Houston’s airports. It has also caused people across the US to drain the energy grid at high levels to keep warm, tapping out the energy supply.
On Monday, Southwest Power Pool, which manages the electric grid for 14 states in the central US—Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming—said it directed its members to begin controlled outages to avert a broader uncontrolled blackout.
“In our history as a grid operator, this is an unprecedented event and marks the first time SPP has ever had to call for controlled interruptions of service,” SPP’s executive vice president and CEO Lanny Nickell said in a statement. “It’s a last resort that we understand puts a burden on our member utilities and the customers they serves, but it’s a step we’re consciously taking to prevent circumstances from getting worse, which could result in uncontrolled outages of even greater magnitude.”
Individual states will ultimately decide whether and how to implement outages.
The apocalyptic conditions have inspired president Biden to declare an emergency in Texas and order federal assistance to the state, where rolling blackouts have left traffic signals switched off and more than 2.5 million people were without power, as the ice-cold temperatures cause people to drain the power grid more than normal to keep safe.
The icy weather caused the lowest temperatures in 30 years in Texas, and governor Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency over the weekend and has deployed the Texas National Guard.
He also warned about the risk that the sudden snowfall could pose on Texas roads, where drivers aren’t used to icy conditions.
“These conditions are so unprecedented for so many reasons in the state of Texas, there will be so many other people who have never driven on ice before,” he said. “And it could be one of the most hazardous things that you can do.”
Accidents have already occurred throughout the state, including a 25-car pileup in Austin.
The Pacific North West was also hammered with snow, causing tens of thousands to lose power over the weekend, including more than 200,000 in Portland alone.
Oregon governor Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency for the city on Saturday.
“Crews are out in full force now and are coordinating with local emergency response teams on communications for emergency services, such as warming centers,” Ms Brown said in a statement. “I’m committed to making state resources available to ensure crews have the resources they need on the ground.”
Ice-cold temperatures have inspired states like Oregon and Washington to open warming shelters for unhoused people, who face punishing wild-chill that makes the low temperatures feel even worse if they have to stay outside.
The combined effects of the weather have also slowed the rollout of the Covid vaccine, as low temperatures and dangerous road conditions prevent potential patients from getting their scheduled jab.
One vaccination site in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had to reschedule 2000 appointments, while another in Oklahoma City moved 700 appointments to 10 March, critical delays when the normal course of the vaccine only suggests a three or four-week pause between shots.
Cities across the US recorded some of their lowest temperatures ever, with record readings in Hibbing/Chisholm, Minnesota, of minus 38 degrees, and minus 26 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.