Millions of people are without power as a winter storm hits the southern and central United States, with the death toll rising to 20 in record cold weather.
More than 20 storm-related deaths were recorded on Tuesday as storm warnings were issued in parts of Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and the hardest-hit state in the Texas.
More than 2,700 U.S. flights had been canceled by noon Tuesday, conducted by two Texas airports, with more than 800 canceled at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and more than 700 at Bush Intercontinental in Houston.
In Texas – where freezing conditions prompted utility companies to implement rotating power cuts – a woman and a girl died of carbon monoxide poisoning after using a car to generate heat , according to NBC News.
On Monday in Houston, a homeless man was killed “possibly from exposure,” according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, and the city’s police chief said another man was found death after potential exposure to low temperatures.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday pledged to provide additional emergency resources to those affected by the “historic storm.”
He also thanked “road workers, highway patrol officers and first responders who act quickly under horrible conditions to save lives,” according to a White House statement.
Electricity networks overwhelmed
The storm that overwhelmed power grids and crippled the southern plains on Tuesday brought heavy snowfall and freezing rain to New England and the Deep South and left temperatures extremely low.
Wind chill warnings have been extended from Canada to Mexico, where four million people have lost electricity.
The weather also threatened to affect the country’s COVID-19 vaccination effort, with the Biden administration saying delays in vaccine shipments and deliveries were likely.
The National Weather Service was “very surprised at how quickly this storm has intensified … and at the hour of the night when most people are at home and in bed, it creates a very dangerous situation”, said Ed Conrow, director of emergency services.
The worst power outages in the United States occurred in Texas, affecting more than 2 million homes and businesses. More than 250,000 people also lost power in parts of the Appalachians, and another 200,000 were without power following an ice storm in northwestern Oregon, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks the utility outage reports.
Texas officials have requested 60 generators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and have plans to prioritize hospitals and nursing homes. The state has opened 35 shelters to more than 1,000 occupants, the agency said.
More than 500 people sought warmth at a Houston shelter. Mayor Sylvester Turner said other warming centers have been closed because they lost power.
After losing power on Monday, Natalie Harrell said she, her boyfriend and four children took shelter in a furniture store in Houston. The store’s warming center provided people with food, water, and electricity to charge essential electronics.
“It’s worse than a hurricane,” Harrell said. “I think we’re going to be more days with no light, that’s what it looks like.”
Utilities from Minnesota to Texas have implemented continual blackouts to ease the burden on power grids that must meet the extreme demands for heat and electricity.
Power outages lasting over an hour began around dawn Tuesday for Oklahoma City and more than a dozen other communities, shutting down radiators, ovens and electric lights as temperatures hovered around minus 22 degrees Celsius (-8 Fahrenheit).
Oklahoma Gas & Electric has canceled plans for additional power outages, but urged users to set thermostats no higher than 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), avoid using large electrical appliances, and turn off lights or appliances not in use.
The Nebraska power outages came amid the coldest weather conditions on record: in Omaha, the temperature hit a low of minus 30 Celsius (-23 Fahrenheit) overnight, the coldest in 25 years.
The Southwest Power Pool, a utility group spanning 14 states, said the outages were “a last resort to preserve the reliability of the power system as a whole.”
Bad weather affects the vaccination campaign
Several cities recorded record lows: in Minnesota, the Hibbing / Chisholm weather station recorded minus 39 degrees Celsius (minus 38 degrees Fahrenheit). Sioux Falls in South Dakota has dropped to minus 32 Celsius (minus 26 Fahrenheit).
Authorities pleaded with residents to stay at home on Tuesday. About 100 school systems have been closed, delayed opening, or moved to distant classrooms in Alabama, where forecasters said conditions may not improve until temperatures exceed freezing on Wednesday after -midday.
The blackouts forced a county in Texas to scramble to administer more than 8,000 doses of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine after a public health facility lost power early Monday and its back-up generator also failed, said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesperson for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
County officials distributed the doses that could have spoiled to three hospitals, Rice University and the county jail because there were large groups of people available at those locations along with the necessary medical staff.
“It’s incredible. I’m very grateful, ”said Harry Golen, a sophomore university student who waited almost four hours with his friends, much of it in the cold, and was among the last to get the vaccine, who otherwise would not have reached the students until March or April.
Texas officials have said more than 400,000 doses currently expected will not arrive until at least Wednesday due to the storm.