A powerful winter storm claims at least 16 lives across the US as temperatures plunge, winds howl and power lines fall
(CNN) — More than 400,000 homes and businesses nationwide were without power Christmas Eve, thanks to an Arctic blast and winter storm that tore down power lines with destructive winds and heavy snow and dipped temperatures dangerously low — conditions killing at least 16 people.
As bone-chilling air continues to grip the US this holiday weekend, the storm still is pummeling parts of the Upper Midwest and interior Northeast with heavy snow and blizzard conditions.
In New York’s Buffalo area particularly, heavy snow (more than 2 feet in places) and strong winds (sometimes higher than 60 mph) at times made visibility close to zero Friday into Saturday. More than a foot more could fall Saturday, with winds gusting up to 65 mph and making temperatures feel well below zero.
In Erie County, which includes Buffalo, blizzard conditions are expected to continue through at least Sunday morning, County Executive Mark Poloncarz told reporters Saturday. The winter storm could continue for at least the next 36 hours, with the blizzard warning in effect until 7 a.m. Christmas morning, Poloncarz said.
“This is still a life-threatening situation,” he said. “This is nothing to be trifled with.”
The county’s Deputy Commissioner of Disaster Preparedness and Homeland Security, Gregory Butcher, said the storm will be significant “for days to come.”
About 500 motorists found themselves stranded in their vehicles in Erie County Friday night into Saturday morning, and a “couple hundred” may still be trapped early Saturday afternoon, Poloncarz told CNN. That’s despite a county driving ban put in place during the storm.
Lia Belles’ 85-year-old grandmother and her father were among the stranded.
They have been stuck on New York State Route 198 in Buffalo — less than a mile from her home — since Friday afternoon. Contact with them is limited due to their phone battery, and they have been turning the heat on and off to save gas.
“There is nothing more I want other than their safety right now,” Belles told CNN Saturday, adding that her dad could walk home but he would never leave his mother alone.
“I’ve tried to walk out to them with a sled but conditions by myself were just impossible,” she said.
Belles said by Saturday afternoon they got help getting the car unstuck but there was no path for them to leave.
“It’s very nerve racking and difficult,” she said. “They’re definitely exhausted, but we’re seeing a little hope right now.”
In hardest-hit areas, many emergency crews that tried to reach the stranded became stuck themselves, Poloncarz said.
“Don’t leave your home,” Poloncarz said on CNN Saturday to anyone thinking about traveling to or within the area. “It’s much safer to be inside, even if you lost your power with it only being 45 degrees inside, than going out and dealing with minus 20 wind chills and blinding conditions.”
National Guard troops were arriving Saturday to “rescue people that are stuck in vehicles,” and to give rides to medical workers so they could relieve colleagues who’d been working at hospitals for more than a day, Poloncarz said.
Buffalo Diocese Bishop Michael W. Fisher on Saturday urged churches to livestream Christmas Mass because of the severe weather.
“Although it is Christmas, in these dangerous conditions, no one should put themselves or others at risk,” he said via Twitter.
Even where it wasn’t snowing and howling, temperatures and wind chills have been dangerously low across much of the country.
From the Plains and the Midwest to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and even in parts of the Southeast, wind chills after the sun rose Saturday morning were below zero, according to the National Weather Service.
• Atlanta: 9 degrees; with minus 8 wind chill
• Memphis: 10 degrees; with minus 4 wind chill
• New York City: 8 degrees; with minus 8 wind chill
• St. Louis: 9 degrees; with minus 12 wind chill
• Washington, DC: 12 degrees; with minus 3 wind chill
At least 16 people have died since Wednesday across seven states, a result of dangerous and life-threatening conditions this week over a large swath of the country:
• Kansas: Three people have died in weather-related traffic accidents, the Kansas Highway Patrol said Friday.
• Kentucky: Three people have died in the state, officials have said, including one involving a vehicle accident in Montgomery County.
• Missouri: One person died after a caravan slid off an icy road and into a frozen creek, Kansas City police said.
• New York: Erie County has had three storm-related deaths, county officials said Saturday. Two died in separate incidents Friday night when emergency medical personnel could not get to their homes in time for medical emergencies, Poloncarz said Saturday morning. Details about the third death, confirmed by a county spokesperson Saturday afternoon, weren’t immediately available.
• Ohio: Four people have died “as a result of weather-related auto accidents,” Gov. Mike DeWine said.
• Tennessee: The Tennessee Department of Health on Friday confirmed one storm-related fatality.
• Wisconsin: Wisconsin State Patrol on Thursday reported one fatal crash due to winter weather.
National Guard troops helping rescue stranded in Buffalo area
As of 7 p.m ET Saturday, 416,198 homes and businesses in the US had no electricity service, according to PowerOutage.us, leaving many people without proper heating or hot water as extremely low temperatures persist Saturday.
A power grid operator for at least 13 states in the country’s eastern half asked customers to conserve power from early Saturday to 10 a.m. on Sunday because usage was straining capacity — and warned rolling blackouts could happen if the strain becomes too much.
The operator, PJM Interconnection, serves about 65 million people in all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
PJM advised people to set thermostats lower than usual and postpone using major electric appliances such as stoves and dishwashers.
In a video on Twitter, a company official said the risk of rotating customer outages is “very real.”
In Tennessee, utilities intermittently interrupted power to customers for a few hours Saturday morning at the behest of the Tennesee Valley Authority — the state’s federally owned electricity provider — because the frigid weather was straining capacity.
The Nashville Electric Service told customers Saturday morning to expect “rotating, intermittent power outages” in about 10-minute increments every 90 minutes to two hours.
The TVA announced shortly before 11 a.m. CT that the interruptions were no longer needed.
In a statement the TVA said it will conduct “a thorough review of our processes, procedures and preparations once we get beyond this unprecedented event.”
During the rolling blackouts, Nashville’s mayor asked the NFL’s Tennessee Titans to postpone their scheduled noon CT Saturday home game against the Houston Texans. The NFL delayed the start for an hour, and said it explored “every possibility to minimize non-essential power around the stadium.”
More than 5,000 flights were canceled Friday with thousands more delayed, and more than 3,100 flights have been canceled Saturday.
What else to expect Christmas Eve
• Cold for many: Wind chills will be dangerously cold across much of the central and eastern US this weekend. “The life-threatening cold temperatures and dangerous wind chills will create a potentially life-threatening hazard for travelers that become stranded,” the National Weather Service said early Saturday.
• Record temps in the South: Atlanta and Tallahassee, Florida, were forecast to have their coldest high temperature ever recorded on December 24, according to the weather service.
• Brutal cold elsewhere: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were expected to see their coldest day Christmas Eve ever on Saturday. Washington, DC, could see its second-coldest on Christmas Eve, the first being in 1989. New York is set to experience its coldest Christmas Eve since 1906. Chicago is expecting temperatures to rebound above zero but will still experience its coldest Christmas Eve since 1983.