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Americans brace for ‘once in a generation’ winter storm chaos

A massive winter storm moved through the United States on Dec. 22, leaving roads across the country covered in snow and ice, threatening holiday travel. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)
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Dreams of a white Christmas week deteriorated to panic over whiteout conditions Thursday as Americans braced for what forecasters called “once in a generation” winter storm chaos.

The warnings sounded across the United States: Get ready for feet of snow, freezing rain, subzero temperatures, power outages and ruined holiday plans. The Midwest hunkered down for a potential “bomb cyclone,” which meteorologists described as a cross between a hurricane and a blizzard.

At least 4,200 flights were canceled ahead of the busiest travel weekend of the year, and icy roads imperiled drivers. Highway patrol troopers in Wyoming responded to more than 100 car wrecks in 12 hours. The governors of Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and New York declared states of emergency.

“I encourage everyone, everyone to please heed the local warnings,” President Biden told reporters. “This is not like a snow day when you were a kid. This is serious stuff.”

The Arctic cold front slicing through the Lower 48 triggered dizzying temperature plunges: Denver, for instance, endured a record-breaking 37-degree drop in one hour.

Life-threatening wind chills were expected to reach the East Coast by Friday, according to the National Weather Service, which warned that temperatures could plummet by 50 degrees or more in some areas. Strong winds, rain and ice posed a threat to holiday treks through D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Meteorologists also cautioned that the Great Lakes could see intense snowfall and blizzard conditions through the weekend. Airports in Chicago and Detroit were expected to rack up the most delays and cancellations.

Yet many travelers forged ahead.

Maddie Nieman, a 31-year-old graphic designer in Los Angeles, couldn’t stand the thought of missing her family’s Christmas celebration for the second year in a row. Last December, a battle with the coronavirus kept her in bed. This week, she feverishly scrolled through strategic flight options: Was there a dodge-the-blizzard window?

Nieman was supposed to meet her mother and brothers in Chicago on Wednesday, but that flight was canceled, so she booked another for Friday and two more on Saturday, hoping at least one of those planes will take off.

“I’m hedging my bets and keeping the flight credits,” she said.

Across the Midwest, people rushed to buy supplies and last-minute Christmas presents before the flurries intensified. One meteorologist in Lansing, Mich., tweeted a photo of a picked-clean grocery store aisle.

“Never in my life have I seen EVERY SINGLE LOAF of bread gone from the shelves,” she wrote. “They even took the pumpernickel!”

Liz Barrett, a 60-year-old food and wine publicist in Chicago, stocked up on bottles of champagne and Napa Valley red blends. Outside her window Thursday evening, the snow appeared to be blowing sideways. Though most of her family lived within 15 miles of each other, she worried a monster blizzard — the ice, the tricky visibility — could keep them apart.

“I can’t even fathom that,” she said. “It would be a dark and lonely time fueled by too much wine.”

The weather in normally storm-hardy Chicago forced closures of several popular attractions on Thursday, shutting visitors out of museums and holiday light displays. The beloved downtown Christkindlmarket met an early end. City officials advised residents to stay indoors.

Michael Lanigan, 31, who works in equity sales in New York, was supposed to fly into the Windy City on Thursday to spend the holiday with his fiance’s family, but his flight was canceled. He booked another for Friday (also canceled). He booked another for Saturday (fingers crossed) and, as a last resort, reserved a rental car — even as Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) urged New Yorkers to scrap their travel plans.

Hurricane Ian had thwarted the couple’s October wedding in Florida. He didn’t want another catastrophic storm to steal Christmas.

“It’s only a 12-hour drive,” he said, laughing. “It’s going to happen. I’m going to spend Christmas in Chicago.”

Paul Stoick, a 33-year-old environmental engineer in San Diego, had thought he was in the clear until he saw the departures screen.

“Suddenly the whole board went completely red and yellow,” he said. “Everything was canceled and delayed.”

He’d gotten up at 4 a.m. Thursday to begin the journey to Sioux Falls, S.D. His family lives in a small town about 150 miles north. Fourteen hours later, he was stuck in the Denver airport, staring out at the frosty tarmac.

His connecting flight was canceled. The next one was delayed.

If Stoick managed to board that plane, he’d face other obstacles on the ground. Blizzard concerns spurred authorities to shut down the highway to his hometown. He’d have to find a hotel and hope the weather clears up in time for him to deliver toys to his nieces and nephew on Christmas.

“I grew up with winter conditions,” he said, speaking from Terminal C of the Denver airport. “We kind of deal with it as we get it.”

Kim Bellware in Chicago and Jason Samenow in D.C., contributed to this report.