Residents brave the frigid temperatures and heavy gusts of wind in downtown Detroit on Friday. (Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)
10 min

The fearsome winter storm that forecasters likened to a hurricane within a blizzard tore through the United States on Friday, knocking out power for at least 1.5 million people while exposing nearly two-thirds of Americans to extreme weather: Pounding snow. Freezing rain. Floods. Tree-snapping wind. Frigid air that could inflict frostbite in ten minutes.

The Arctic blast sent temperatures tumbling, some at record-breaking speeds, as blizzards throttled the Great Lakes region and western New York. Even winter-tested cities like Chicago and Detroit shuttered holiday attractions and urged people to stay inside. The air was so chilly that vapor rose from the waters of Ohio River and Lake Michigan.

The storm that the National Weather Service described as “once in a generation” began Thursday and is expected to last through Christmas weekend, ultimately carving a 2,000-mile path across much of the country. By Friday evening, the blitz of elements had intensified into a “bomb cyclone,” which forms when cold, dry air from the north slams into warm, moist air from the tropics. The danger zone extended from Canada to Mexico, and from Washington state to Florida.

The potent storm did not respect international borders: In Canada, as in the United States, whiteout conditions and fierce winds spurred flight cancellations, shut down major highways and left hundreds of thousands without power. In southwestern Ontario, a 100-vehicle pileup blocked parts of Highway 401, a major thoroughfare.

In the United States, where almost half of the Lower 48 states were subject to powerful winds, 12 governors declared states of emergency. Outages caused by storm gusts zapped power along the East Coast and in Texas, with the worst impacts in Virginia and North Carolina.

“I called it a kitchen sink storm because it is throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) said at a Friday news conference. “We’ve had ice, flooding, snow, freezing temperatures and everything that mother nature could wallop at us this weekend.”

Travelers nationwide who defied suggestions to stay home were forced to plow through logistical nightmares. Airlines in the United States canceled or delayed thousands of flights Friday, adding to earlier disruptions ahead the year’s busiest time for family gatherings. Train and bus systems shut down. Road closures stretched for hundreds of miles. Highway traffic froze to a standstill.

Authorities tallied at least nine deaths on the road as the storm moved through the country — the Kansas Highway Patrol and Oklahoma Highway Patrol each reported three deaths from storm-related crashes; Kentucky reported two traffic deaths; Ohio reported one.

Chey Eisenman, who runs a car service in Minneapolis, said drivers were struggling on the slick pavement.

“They barely get the cars pulled out of the ditch, and there’s more cars in the ditch,” she said. “I think people are just frazzled trying to take their loved ones to the airport, and maybe some inexperienced Uber drivers.”

More than 200 million Americans were under alerts for potentially hazardous weather in their area, the National Weather Service said, amounting to “one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever.” Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Tallahassee, were all expected to set records, respectively, for their coldest Christmas Eves.

Defying its adage to power through any conditions, the U.S. Postal Service said the storm had forced dozens of post offices to close, and both Amazon and FedEx also warned of package delays interrupting the frenzied pre-Christmas rush.

Throughout the frozen zone, public libraries and police stations opened their doors to those seeking warmth, and charities focused on helping vulnerable people kicked into high-gear. Lisa Freeman, executive director of Compass House, a homeless shelter in Buffalo, said outreach teams had to act quickly to avoid suffering or deaths. As the storm rolled in, volunteers scoured areas where people were known to sleep in tents or piles of blankets

“You walk and try to find people,” Freeman said. “Then you go back to your car and warm up. It’s crazy and cold and you just have to try to manage.”

By midafternoon, authorities in the area had imposed a travel ban. “This is why,” one Buffalo weather account tweeted, embedding a video of blinding whiteout conditions on the road. Winds peaked at 71 mph. Visibility remained less than one-quarter mile on Friday and, at times, dropped to zero.

A massive winter storm system moving through the U.S. on Dec. 23 brought high winds and heavy snow to the Buffalo region. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown delivered an afternoon update on the dire conditions from his darkened home after he and thousands of other residents lost power as the storm dumped what is expected to total as much as four feet of snow on the lakefront city. As of 5 p.m., when the temperature stood at a frigid 7 degrees, the city’s electricity provider, National Grid, was estimating that as many as 20,000 customers were without power.

Even the city’s two warming centers were without electricity but conditions were too dangerous, the utility provider said, for its crews to work to restore it.

“If you lose power in your home, probably the safest thing right now is to shelter at home as opposed to going out and trying to find a shelter,” Brown said. The city instituted a driving ban on Friday because of “whiteout conditions” across the region, but the mayor said stranded drivers who ignored the ban were “clogging up the 911 system” and that their calls were not being considered “high priority calls at this time.”

“I didn’t think it would be this bad,” said Jaeger Martino, a 23-year-old college student from Niagara Falls who said he left his home to try to move his car to keep it from getting stuck in the snow. “But when I got in my car, my windshield was frozen and it was just a complete whiteout, you couldn’t see anything ahead of you.”

In Colorado, ice and snow coated roads. Airlines canceled 647 flights out of Denver International Airport in 24 hours. The Coliseum, home of the National Western Stock Show every January, became a warming center for hundreds of people who lacked shelter.

In Michigan, the wind was blowing too hard Friday for anyone to fix the power cuts that affected thousands, utility officials said, but hundreds of field workers were prepared to keep at the problem through Christmas Day. The number of power outages reported by DTE Energy had almost tripled by the evening to 8,000 in greater Detroit.

For children upset about missing the Detroit Zoo’s annual light show — yet another extreme weather casualty — one source of cheer was still working: the live cams trained on sea otters and penguins. (The aquatic birds continued to waddle around as usual.)

In St. Paul, Minn., not all holiday joy was lost to the freezing weather. Audiences pushed through the subzero chill to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a music group with a huge fan base in the Twin Cities.

Inside the Xcel Energy Center, Ellise Lamb said she wouldn’t let black ice stop her from attending the show. However, on her way in, she spotted car parts all over Interstate 494.

“You could see where they slid,” she said. “The parts just went on and on.” Her survival mantra, she added: “You just go slow. We know how to do this.”

In Philadelphia, another city accustomed to punishing weather, Laamia Hussain, a 25-year-old analyst, was carrying her groceries home Friday when she realized the power had gone out in her building. That meant she had to hoist the bags up six flights of steps.

“I was not expecting that workout,” she said. She’d wanted to stock up on essentials before the winter weather grew too daunting.

Now she is unsure when the power will return. Outside her window, she sees streets covered with snow. “There’s crazy wind, too,” she said. “My windows keep creaking.”

Luckily, thanks to a friend’s warning, she’d charged her devices leading up to the blackout. As for herself, Hussain said she kept her coat on and buried herself under blankets. If the lights didn’t come back on soon, she planned to trek over to the home of a friend who still had electricity.

Matt Brown, a 31-year-old Spanish teacher in Manhattan, said he was hoping to reach Chicago on Christmas Eve. But his Saturday flight is uncertain.

“But it’s looking like … yeah. I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “I’m glad I got insurance for it.”

Eating his mother’s cooking on Christmas with the television set to a Hallmark movie was the goal. If he had to stay in New York, though, maybe he’d bundle up and take himself out to dinner. At least his school was able to throw a classroom holiday party for the kids — complete with karaoke renditions of “Feliz Navidad.”

“It’s like 50 degrees right now,” he said, speaking from the festivities.

“But it’s going to do down to 13 later,” one of his students chimed in.

“I’ll have to mentally prepare,” he replied.

Over on Long Island, floods propelled by storm winds ravaged neighborhoods on the south shore. Video showed a school bus wading through brown water, and part of the Long Island Rail Road temporarily shut down. Communities in the Jersey Shore and on Connecticut’s coast also reported flooding.

The expanse of the storm meant that even states far from the northeast were in the target zone. Tennessee’s state electric utility briefly ordered rolling blackouts in response to what it called “unprecedented” demand before rescinding the move and pleading with customers to try to save energy. Nashville asked residents to let the sun in through their curtains and “bundle up in a cozy sweater, warm socks or a blanket.”

In Des Moines, the subzero chill was too cold for ice skating. The downtown rink was forced to close.

“If people are outside for more than 10 or 15 minutes, it’s just too dangerous,” said Ben Page, parks and recreation director.

The city’s golf courses, usually a winter haven for sledders, were also noticeably empty.

“I didn’t see a soul,” he said.

Becca Schell, a 30-year-old biotech worker in Denver, thought the travel torment was over once she landed in Baltimore. She and her fiance were supposed to arrive in Maryland early Thursday afternoon, but their flight was delayed by seven hours.

On Friday, however, after arriving at the house of her fiance’s parents, a new issue emerged: The power went out. The temperature in the house dropped to 55 degrees. “We decided then it was time to leave,” she said. They were off to her fiance’s sister’s place nearby.

“We walked outside, and we were not okay within one to two minutes,” she said. “If you have any skin exposed, the wind just cuts you.”

By sundown, she was relieved to be under a blanket, finally ready to enjoy the holidays. Schell just hoped the lights would stay on.

Felton reported from New York. Amanda Coletta in Toronto, Sheila Regan in Minneapolis, Nikie Johnson in Ankeny, Iowa, Jennifer Oldham in Denver and Scott Dance in Washington contributed to this report