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Severe ice storm causing travel chaos from Texas to Tennessee

The Washington Post 1/31/2023 Dan Stillman
An EMS vehicle drives down an icy highway in Dallas on Tuesday. © Shelby Tauber/Reuters An EMS vehicle drives down an icy highway in Dallas on Tuesday.

A dangerous ice storm has turned streets into skating rinks and closed schools across a large swath of the southern United States from Texas to Tennessee. The frozen precipitation, mainly in the form of freezing rain and sleet, developed in Texas and Oklahoma midday Monday before spreading to the east and northeast Monday night into Tuesday.

Multivehicle crashes near Austin and Memphis on Tuesday morning stranded drivers for hours, with at least one fatality confirmed, and hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed, with airports serving Dallas and Austin among those hardest hit.

More than 1,700 flights canceled as wintry weather hits southern U.S. © Provided by The Washington Post

Power outages were starting to build as well. As of midafternoon Tuesday, more than 20,000 customers in Texas were in the dark.

State and local officials were asking people to stay off icy roads and urging the safe use of space heaters to avoid destructive home fires. In some cases, treated roads might be passable, but bridges could still be dangerously icy.

The scene of a multivehicle fatal accident on a highway on-ramp in Austin on Tuesday. © Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP The scene of a multivehicle fatal accident on a highway on-ramp in Austin on Tuesday.

One person was confirmed dead in a 10-vehicle pileup Tuesday morning in Austin. The Austin Fire Department said it responded to more than 90 accidents between midnight and about 11 a.m.

Thundersleet, which is indicative of intense bursts of precipitation, was reported in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Up to about 1.5 inches of sleet fell as far north as southern Missouri and southern Illinois.

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The forecast through Wednesday

Difficult to nearly impossible travel conditions were expected to continue Tuesday afternoon through early Wednesday. Winter storm warnings, ice storm warnings and winter weather advisories stretched across central and northeast Texas, southeast Oklahoma, Arkansas, western Tennessee, southern Missouri, southern Illinois, southern Kentucky, and far southwestern Virginia.

An additional round of ice could hit central and northern Texas, as well as much of Oklahoma and Arkansas, Wednesday into early Thursday.

The National Weather Service is predicting ice accumulations of 0.25 to 0.75 inches across parts of central and northern Texas, southern Oklahoma, south-central Arkansas, and western Tennessee, with up to one inch possible in south-central Texas near and west of Austin.

Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd, left, and Gov. Greg Abbott observe weather patterns during a briefing Tuesday in Austin. © Brandon Bell/Getty Images Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd, left, and Gov. Greg Abbott observe weather patterns during a briefing Tuesday in Austin.

“Accumulating ice on roadways, especially bridges and overpasses, will cause treacherous travel conditions. Prolonged power outages and tree damage are likely,” the National Weather Service said in a summary of key messages.


Moderate to heavy sleet was expected to continue Tuesday across and southwest of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with average ice accumulations around 0.25 to 0.5 inches. Isolated thunderstorms could produce bursts of sleet and freezing rain, with some spots receiving up to one inch of sleet.

Travel impacts were expected to continue in and around Dallas-Fort Worth, and westward to Abilene, Midland and Lubbock, at least into Wednesday afternoon, and in some spots potentially into Thursday morning before temperatures rise above freezing.

(National Weather Service) © National Weather Service/National Weather Service (National Weather Service)

The worst is probably still to come in Austin and San Antonio. “Today is worse than yesterday, but tomorrow will be even worse than today,” the Weather Service office serving the region wrote Tuesday.

Icy conditions were expected to remain north and west of the Houston area.

Arkansas and Oklahoma

Periods of sleet and freezing rain were expected to continue across much of Arkansas and central to southern Oklahoma into Thursday, especially Tuesday afternoon into the evening, and again Wednesday evening into Thursday morning. For Little Rock, most of the precipitation should be in the form of freezing rain, with another 0.1 to 0.2 inches of ice accumulation possible.

Oklahoma City is forecast to see the worst conditions Wednesday evening into Thursday morning.


A mix of freezing rain and sleet is expected in Memphis, as well as near and to the north and west of Nashville, especially late Tuesday afternoon through early Wednesday, with up to a half-inch of ice accumulation possible through Wednesday. Conditions should improve as temperatures rise above freezing late Wednesday.

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Cold air from the north, warm air from the south

The nasty combination of sleet and freezing rain is a result of warm air at the upper levels of the atmosphere that came from the south, and cold air near the surface that came from the north. The precipitation melts into liquid as it falls through the higher and warmer air first, then freezes as it reaches the colder air near the ground.

Freezing rain occurs when liquid rain freezes on contact with the cold ground, forming an icy glaze. Sleet, on the other hand, develops when there’s a narrow wedge of cold air several thousand feet high that freezes partially melted snowflakes into pellet-sized pieces of ice. Generally speaking, sleet provides more traction and is not as hazardous for pedestrians and motorists as freezing rain — but it is still quite slick.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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