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Ice storm crippling Texas, Mid-South as death toll, power outages climb

At least 7 people have died in vehicle accidents and hundreds of thousands are without power in Texas, with more outages likely

A City of Dallas emergency vehicle blocks lanes of U.S. Highway 75 during icy and slushy road conditions on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Dallas. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
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A severe and prolonged ice storm, which began Monday, is transforming parts of Texas and the Mid-South into a skating rink, causing treacherous travel and power outages and damaging trees. At least seven people in Texas have died in traffic accidents since Monday, according to local reports.

More than 350,000 customers in Texas were without power Wednesday afternoon, though that number is likely to climb as a grand finale of freezing rain traverses the Lone Star State into early Thursday. The National Weather Service is warning of “significant” impacts that could render travel nearly impossible.

Most of the outages in Texas were due to the weight of ice on power lines, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said at a news conference Tuesday, adding that the grid itself is “functioning very effectively” amid freezing temperatures. “There is not anticipated to be any challenge to the power grid in the state of Texas,” he said.

Over half of the state’s outages were in Travis County, home to Austin, Wednesday afternoon. The Weather Service cautioned an additional three tenths of an inch of ice could accumulate here.

An ice storm struck Texas, Oklahoma and neighboring states on Jan. 30, covering some areas with as much as 0.75 inches of ice. (Video: The Washington Post)

Approximately that much has coated the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex thus far, but that number will probably double as more moisture works into the region Wednesday — the third wave of icy precipitation in three days. Some areas could end up with a glaze up to an inch thick.

Ice storm warnings are in effect for nearly 13 million people across Texas and the Mid-South, including residents of Dallas, Fort Worth, Abilene, Midland-Odessa and San Angelo in Texas. Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and Little Rock in Arkansas, as well as Memphis and Jackson, Tenn., are encompassed as well.

Fischer, Tex., north of San Antonio, reported 0.75 inches of ice Wednesday morning, which was enough to topple trees and sever branches.

At least 2,000 flights had been canceled Wednesday after nearly that many on Tuesday, and roadways have been equally problematic. A 10-vehicle wreck on an elevated on-ramp near Austin resulted in one death. There were reports of at least six other deaths attributed to the icy weather since Monday:

Pileups are common in freezing rain and freezing drizzle; in early February 2021, six people died in a 133-vehicle pileup on an elevated segment of highway near Fort Worth.

Hardest hit will be stretches of Interstates 35 and 20 in Texas, as well as the Interstate 10 corridor in the Permian Basin and Big Bend. Of particular concern is the span from Dallas to Texarkana, Tex., to Little Rock to Memphis on Interstates 30 and 40, where some of the heaviest freezing rain buildup is expected in the day ahead.

Interspersed throughout the entire episode have been instances of thunder sleet and thunder ice, with flashes of lightning jolting residents amid moderate-to-heavy wintry precipitation.

The latest

On Wednesday afternoon, a sprawling area of freezing rain stretched from Pecos in west Texas through Abilene and Dallas into southern Oklahoma, central Arkansas and western Tennessee. This icy zone will continue to progress to the east and northeast into Wednesday night.

The precipitation is far removed from a surface cold front, which lurks hundreds of miles to the southeast over the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, the patches of freezing rain are straddling a temperature gradient, or boundary, about a mile up in the atmosphere.

A weather balloon launched out of Fort Worth on Tuesday night found a temperature of 47 degrees at one mile of elevation, and 27 degrees at the surface. That’s why precipitation is able to fall as liquid and freeze on contact with the surface.

Meteorologists refer to the process as “overrunning,” with mild, moisture-rich air sliding up and over a shallow, cold and dense layer hugging the ground. It’s a textbook recipe for freezing rain.

Into Thursday

Weather models indicate continued off-and-on freezing rain throughout the remainder of Wednesday. The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center also drew a “general thunder” risk on their outlooks across much of Texas and portions of Mississippi and Arkansas. That overlaps with areas that are below freezing, which represents the threat of thunder and lightning amid the freezing rain.

Another pulse of moisture will begin to take shape over Texas Hill Country by Wednesday evening, expanding northeast overnight and ending west to east during the late morning into early afternoon Thursday. It will once again trek along the same areas that have seen days of freezing rain. This time, however, there are signs that Nashville could awaken to a glaze that may interrupt the Thursday morning commute.

A final burst of snow is possible around or after lunchtime Thursday in Central Texas, but flakes should cease to fly east of Dallas.

Ice totals

The National Weather Service is highlighting a quarter to a third of an inch across much of Central Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Some places just to the southwest may see closer to half an inch.

In southern Oklahoma, a quarter-inch of additional ice, give or take, is likely. This will affect Ada, Ardmore, Durant and the Choctaw Nation. For western Tennessee and across the majority of Arkansas, a tenth- to a quarter-inch is probable.

Preparations and impacts

Many of the locations in line to experience significant ice accumulation are not accustomed to dealing with widespread hazardous winter weather. As such, travel is discouraged. Motorists should also be aware that bridges and overpasses tend to freeze first. Some tips:

  • Minimize or eliminate travel, particularly in areas forecast to deal with a quarter-inch or more of glaze. Chain-reaction crashes are very common during freezing rain events (more so than in any other type of weather).
  • Charge electronic devices ahead of the incoming precipitation, especially in Texas. Areas that see more than half an inch of ice buildup will probably experience at least scattered power outages.
  • Before the freezing rain begins, inspect your property to ensure there are no tree limbs that, if they sag or droop under the weight of ice, could cause property damage. Consider relocating your vehicles elsewhere in your driveway or yard so they’re not in danger of being hit by falling tree limbs.
  • After the storm, avoid walking within 10 feet of skyscrapers, high-rise buildings or tall transmission towers. Melting chunks of ice can fall and cause injury.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.