The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Over 300,000 without power as major winter storm slogs east

Ice and snow storm that hit areas from Texas to Ohio will shift to the Northeast on Friday

Ice coats tree branches in Dallas on Feb. 3. (LM Otero/AP)
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More than 300,000 customers from Texas to Pennsylvania were without power Thursday night as a major winter storm continued moving east across the United States, bringing snow, sleet and freezing rain to Midwest and eastern U.S. The National Weather Service warned of “impossible” travel conditions, and local authorities urged drivers to stay off the roads.

More than 90 million Americans from Texas to Maine’s northern border were included in winter weather advisories or winter storm and ice storm warnings, a swath of weather alerts about 2,000 miles long.

In the warm, unstable air to the southeast, severe thunderstorms erupted across portions of Mississippi and Alabama Thursday afternoon, prompting numerous tornado warnings. One person was killed and at least eight were injured when a “large and extremely dangerous tornado” barreled through Sawyerville, Ala., about 30 miles southwest of Tuscaloosa, just after 3 p.m. Eastern time, according to the National Weather Service.

In the colder air to the west and north, snow and ice and freezing temperatures snarled traffic as far south as Austin and the west side of Houston while extending north and east through Dallas, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Memphis, St. Louis, Louisville, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

Due to the build-up of ice on trees and power lines, the number of power outages in Tennessee had spiked to 135,000 on Thursday night, many of them near Memphis where Mayor Jim Strickland declared a state of emergency. The ice in Memphis was also the cause of an accident involving 16 vehicles, injuring 6 people, according to the Memphis Fire Department.

As much as half an inch of ice had accumulated on tree limbs in Memphis, which snapped under its weight. MLGW, the local utility, said power restoration could “take days.”

Outage numbers were also climbing in Ohio (76,000), West Virginia (22,000) Pennsylvania (22,000), according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages nationwide.

In Texas, Arkansas and Kentucky, where outage numbers peaked around 70,000, 25,000 and 20,000, respectively, earlier Thursday, they were slowly declining through the evening as freezing rain transitioned more to sleet and snow and then tapered off. The outage count in Texas had dropped to below 25,000 and to under 15,000 in Arkansas and Kentucky Thursday night.

More than 300,000 Americans are in the dark on Feb. 4 amid a serious winter storm that has dropped heavy snow and ice. (Video: Reuters)

In Kentucky, some of the areas hardest hit by ice and power outages Thursday were among the same ravaged by the deadly tornado outbreak in December.

Air travel nationwide was plagued due to the sprawling storm. There were more than 5,500 cancellations and 3,300 delays, according to the tracking website FlightAware — with many concentrated in Texas.

More than 1,100 flights departing from or scheduled to arrive at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport were canceled. The airport tweeted earlier that runways were being treated for snow and ice. More than 400 combined flights were canceled at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and more than 350 were canceled at Dallas’s Love Field.

4,700 flights canceled Thursday as winter storms slam Midwest, southern U.S.

Icy precipitation on Thursday concentrated in a swath from roughly eastern Texas to western Pennsylvania. To the north, heavy snowfall, of at least 6 inches, plastered St. Louis, Indianapolis and Cleveland and was projected in Buffalo and Burlington, Vt., into Friday.

The National Weather Service warned of hazardous road conditions throughout the affected areas, which it said would probably see well-below-average temperatures for at least the next couple of days.

Parts of the Mississippi River valley and the Great Plains could record temperatures 20 to 40 degrees below average, the Weather Service said. It called the storm “large, prolonged, and significant.”

On Feb. 2, a major winter storm began dumping a wintry mess on more than 80 million Americans across the Midwest and South. (Video: The Washington Post)

Happening Thursday night

Frozen precipitation was finally tapering off in Texas, Arkansas and western Tennessee overnight Thursday, but stretched from Ohio to Maine.

The Weather Service issued a special bulletin from Southern Ohio into western Pennsylvania cautioning that “[m]oderate to heavy wintry mix will continue into the overnight hours.” One to two inches of sleet and up to one-quarter inch of ice had already accumulated in the region, where power outages were mounting.

Farther north, steady snow was falling in an extensive zone from Columbus, Oh. to Buffalo to Burlington, Vt. through much of Maine.

Meanwhile, flooding rain has been falling on the system’s warm side in the Deep South, with flash flood watches up in northern Alabama, northeast Georgia, southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina.

The forecast

The most substantial icy precipitation will shift from the Tennessee Valley into West Virginia and western and central Pennsylvania overnight Thursday. Pittsburgh, State College and Allentown, Pa., could see significant icing before precipitation flips to snow. Areas northwest of New York City in the Hudson Valley could see icy conditions Friday morning as well.

The snow should finally end taper over much of the Midwest Thursday night but continue in Ohio until morning.

Extreme northwest Pennsylvania, Upstate New York around the Finger Lakes and the Tug Hill Plateau and Vermont will see snowfall persist well into Friday. Snow that entered Maine and New Hampshire on Thursday afternoon may continue into Friday evening.

The heaviest snow totals will be realized just north of the freezing rain and sleet line, with another 6 to 12 inches possible, especially in areas that haven’t seen snow yet into the interior Northeast.

The storm’s final act comes Friday in eastern New England, when morning rain will transition to freezing rain, sleet and all snow as temperatures crash into the 20s during the evening. A “flash freeze” overnight into early Saturday will cause any remnant moisture and slushy slop on the roadways to harden and freeze.

The power situation in Texas

Ahead of the storm, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday that “no one can guarantee” there would not be power outages during the first significant test of the state’s power grid a year after a historic freeze killed hundreds of residents and left millions without power for days.

The number of outages as of Thursday were “certainly an inconvenience but not that big of a deal in terms of what you might expect from a wind storm and ice storm,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Outages last year were driven largely by a “massive imbalance between supply and demand,” he said, but Thursday seemed driven by wind or ice accumulation that can fell trees.

The power at Webber’s home was out but started to return during an interview with The Washington Post.

“An outage for two hours — not two and a half days,” he said, underlining the difference from the major storm in 2021.

Texas governor says ‘no one can guarantee’ there won’t be power outages in winter storm

Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, said Thursday’s outages had been localized, “which anywhere in the world could get when you have an ice storm come through and knock down tree branches and affect local power lines.”

Ahead of the winter storm, Texas’s state grid reported that its electric generation units and transmission facilities had met new standards. Webber said such inspections and winterization investments will have already been helpful, “but the system hasn’t really been tested yet.”

“This storm will not be as cold for as long across as wide an area as last year,” he said. “So it isn’t the same kind of test. It’s a simpler, milder storm in many ways, and the equipment should be in better shape.”

In the coming days, Webber said, it will be helpful to monitor how cold it gets in Houston. The state’s biggest city will largely dictate the level of power demand. He said he is also interested in how gas systems and gas-producing regions hold up to the cold, and how that will affect gas supply.

Cohan said he’s watching how the wind farms fare, whether major gas pipelines remain in working order and whether “our old fleet of power plants perform better than they did last year.”

“If not too many wind farms ice, gas supply stays adequate and not too many power plants fail in the freeze, then we’ll get through this fine and eke by with just enough supply,” Cohan said.

Snow and ice totals so far

The snow had piled up to impressive and disruptive levels through Thursday night, with dozens of locations logging double-digit accumulations. Leading the pack was Taos Ski Valley, N.M. with 37 inches.

Other totals include:

  • Valparaiso, Ind.: 13.5 inches
  • Denver and Boulder, Colo.: Around 12 inches
  • Peoria, Ill.: 12 inches
  • Flint, Mich.: 11 inches
  • Springfield, Mo.: 11 inches
  • Lansing, Mich.: 10 to 12 inches
  • Chicago: 6 to 11 inches
  • South Bend, Ind.: 10 inches
  • St. Louis: 6 to 10 inches
  • Cleveland: 9 inches
  • Fort Wayne, Ind.: 8 inches
  • Buffalo: 8 inches
  • Detroit: 7 inches
  • Ann Arbor, Mich.: 6 inches
  • Wichita: 6 inches
  • Oklahoma City: 6 inches
  • Syracuse, N.Y.: 5 inches
  • Indianapolis: 4 to 6 inches
  • Kansas City: 4 inches
  • Dallas: 1.5 inches

The ice event underway lagged the snow by about 12 hours, but totals increased as Thursday progressed.

Up to a half-inch of ice was reported in eastern Oklahoma, near the border with Arkansas. Nearly one-quarter inch had accumulated in Fort Smith, Ark.

Around half an inch of ice accumulated near Memphis and 0.25 to 0.6 inches in northern Kentucky.

In Texas, the counties of Hunt, Fannin and Collin, north and east of Dallas, reported tree damage from icing Wednesday night. Up to 0.5 inches of ice accumulated in Plano, while the Weather Service reported a glaze of around 0.1 inches near Wichita Falls.

Little Rock had seen more sleet than freezing rain, with the Weather Service reporting 2.5 inches in north Little Rock.

Timothy Bella contributed to this report.

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