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Deadly cold snap shuts down central U.S. Texas is ground zero

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/15/2021 Andrew Freedman, Matthew Cappucci, Kim Bellware, Meryl Kornfield
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A severe cold snap has turned the central and southern parts of the country into an extension of the Arctic, with dangerously low temperatures not seen in decades and a blast of snow and ice which has shut down population centers in multiple states.

The excessive cold has sent energy demand skyrocketing. In Texas, 4.3 million customers were without electricity as of 8:45 p.m. Eastern, according to poweroutage.us, ahead of what was expected to be one of the state’s coldest nights on record, with most areas falling to the single digits or lower.

At least one person, a homeless man in Harris County, had died from suspected exposure to the cold, the Weather Channel reported.

The mercury plummeted in the Lone Star State on Sunday night while it was blitzed by snow and ice, causing nearly impossible driving conditions and hundreds of vehicle accidents. Officials urged residents not to travel, as social media videos proliferated of cars and trucks sliding down roads out of control.

Houston’s Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports were closed, while all flights out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport were also canceled Monday morning.

From January: The polar vortex is splitting in two, which may lead to weeks of wild winter weather

For the first time, the entire state of Texas had been placed under a winter storm warning Sunday. These warnings for hazardous amounts of ice and snow expanded Monday to cover all of Arkansas and most of Louisiana, Mississippi, and western and northern Alabama, while extending northeast through much of the Tennessee and Ohio valleys, and interior Northeast.

In the next 36 hours, more snow, sleet and ice is likely to fall from Oklahoma to New Hampshire, with a foot and a half of snow possible in Little Rock, Ark. and around 10 inches in Chicago.

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In Texas, officials have warned that people may die of hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning from improper use of generators. The economic toll on agriculture could be staggering, with meteorologists in the insurance industry expecting this event, which should go through the end of the week, to end with a billion-dollar cost.

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Houston’s Intercontinental Airport dipped to 17 degrees early Monday, the coldest reading observed there since Dec. 23, 1989. Tuesday’s morning low could be even more frigid — just 11 degrees forecast by the National Weather Service. The wind chill on Tuesday morning is expected to be just 1 degree.

“Dangerous, life and property threatening bitterly cold air will continue even as the precipitation ends,” the Weather Service in Houston wrote early Monday.

Farther north, wind chills early Monday plunged as low as minus-40 and minus-50 in parts of Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado.

Widespread power outages

In Texas, the millions of power outages were tied to record-high demand, an electricity grid that is independent from surrounding states, low natural gas supplies, along with sky-high prices and reduced output from the state’s numerous wind turbines,

Oncor, Texas’ largest electricity utility, which serves 10 million customers, said Monday morning that electricity supply shortfalls are forcing much longer power outages than originally expected. “Outages due to this electric emergency could last for hours & we ask you to be prepared,” it wrote.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) warns it will continue to implement mainly short-term, rolling blackouts across the state as energy demand exceeds supply.

Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company, the state’s largest utility, also announced Monday it implemented intermittent controlled service interruptions — an unprecedented measure for the company. The blackouts were in effect for about two hours Monday but may return depending on the utility’s capacity, spokesman Brian Alford said.

There have been three instances of rotating outages during an Energy Emergency Alert due to weather events in Texas, with the first occurring in 1989, according to ERCOT. Energy demand in the Lonestar State is expected to hit an all-time high.

“About 10,500 megawatts of customer load was shed at the highest point,” ERCOT said in a news release, describing the step of cutting power to reduce demand on the grid. “This is enough power to serve approximately two million homes.”

“Extreme weather conditions caused many generating units — across fuel types — to trip offline and become unavailable.” About 30,000 megawatts of electricity generation has been lost due to the cold and snowy conditions, ERCOT stated. “Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” said ERCOT president and CEO Bill Magness.

For Austin resident Cody Miller, 36, the extreme weather conditions have cause “chaos” in his part of Texas: Closed schools, unplowed streets, long stretches of power outages and shockingly cold temperatures.

Miller had been without power since about 1:30 a.m. Monday morning. By 10 a.m., the temperature in his East Austin home was hovering around 50 degrees with no clear direction from the power companies when it might be restored.

It was the second time in a week he had lost power after enduring a 10-hour outage on Thursday. “There’s no real communication and 311 is pretty much down,” said Miller, who works in the telecom industry.

The lifelong Texan said Monday’s weather was like nothing he’s seen before but noted he was fortunate that his fiancee is familiar with cold weather situations. “She’s from Wisconsin, so we have someone here who has experienced it.”

In parts of Dallas, residents lost both power and water due to frozen pipes.

Brandon Friedman, 42 who lives in northeastern Dallas, had been without power since roughly 2 a.m. and has no water despite leaving the faucets to run on drip.

Speaking to The Post from his car where he was charging his phone, Friedman described his driveway — blanketed in 5 inches of snow — and his regret at leaving one household item behind for the new residents when he moved from Virginia back to Dallas four years ago.

“I left our snow shovel hanging up in the garage in Virginia because we weren’t going to need it in Texas,” Friedman said.

Unlike Virginia where snowplows are “everywhere” at the sign of a first dusting, places in Texas don’t have enough equipment. With the roads largely unplowed, state, city and county officials are telling people to stay home and stay off the roads, Friedman said.

“But people have no electricity. We’re down to record-low temps and people can’t get out and drive to shelter. ... It’s unsettling,” he said.

Adding to the frustration is that the two major companies that generate and distribute power in the area — Oncor and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT — had been telling residents since at least the morning that they would experience “rolling” blackouts lasting 15 to 45 minutes. Friedman said his neighborhood has been without power for at least eight hours (Oncor later issued an update to advise customers the blackout times would be “significantly” longer).

With extreme cold expected to last into Tuesday afternoon and people immobilized, Friedman fears residents will turn to dangerous alternatives to stay warm.

“When people can’t leave their homes and don’t have electricity and it’s 7 degrees, they’re going to use their ovens to heat,” he said. “If you can start your oven to heat the house, you’re going to have fires, you’re going to have carbon monoxide issues.”

“This has the potential to be catastrophic.”

Extreme weather amid pandemic

Among other things, the cold weather has effectively frozen efforts to vaccinate people from the coronavirus.

As people who qualify for the vaccine have long-awaited their first or second dose, several cities and counties in Texas and Tennessee reported they had shut down their inoculation sites, canceling appointments. For some, it’s unclear when those appointments will become available again. Texas officials said that shipments of the vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were put “on hold,” due to the weather.

“We are not expecting deliveries to occur until at least Wednesday and expect an update later today,” Douglas Loveday, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, told The Post Monday. “Many local vaccine providers have postponed clinics since it is not safe for people to be out across much of Texas right now. Vaccination will resume as soon as it is safe.”

Austin resident Shana Gallagher, 26, was scheduled to receive her first vaccine dose Monday in Waco, the closest appointment she could find. But when she canceled her assigned slot due to the weather, she was forced to give up her second dose appointment as well, she said. She qualified for the vaccine because of her autoimmune conditions.

“I spent a lot of time online clicking the refresh button to even get my first appointment,” she said. “I probably spent three hours cumulatively across many days and weeks, and I finally got one. It’s just going to be more of that again.”

Like Gallagher, Dallas resident Deena Riley, 36, wished there was an improved system in place to reschedule appointments. When she goes back to book the appointments her parents, Gayle and Len McManus, both in their 60s, lost Monday due to the weather, she will be navigating an already convoluted process for two.

“There were vaccines allocated and booked this week, and I just don’t understand why they can’t say ‘same time next week,’” Riley said.

Cold is unusually widespread

Punishing cold, ice and snow are also hitting Louisiana, including some of the same areas devastated by hurricanes just months ago. The exceptional cold is affecting about 30 states, with temperatures up to 50 degrees below normal.

According to Greg Carbin of the Weather Prediction Center in Maryland, the area currently covered by Winter Storm Warnings across the continental United States is larger than the land area of Alaska.

a truck driving down a snow covered road: Snowplows works to clear the road during a winter storm Sunday, Feb. 14, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) © Sue Ogrocki/AP Snowplows works to clear the road during a winter storm Sunday, Feb. 14, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Some counties along the immediate Texas coastline near Houston had never been under a winter storm warning until this week. As a first wave of snow and ice pulls away Monday, record cold was being reinforced by northerly winds bringing dangerous wind chills.

After starting the day at minus-5 degrees, Oklahoma City was forecast to peak only around 4 degrees for an afternoon high. That’s below the city’s previous record low temperature for the date. It’s also just 2 degrees away from Oklahoma City’s all-time coldest high.

Kansas City reported a wind chill of minus-32 degrees, the most frigid measured there since 1989.

Dallas hit 5 degrees on Monday morning, its coldest reading since 1989. Likewise, Oklahoma City could drop to minus-7 Tuesday morning, also its coldest since 1989. In Dallas the average high on Feb. 14 is about 58 degrees, the average low 42 degrees.

The dynamic system was so extreme that it was the first time some meteorologists had predicted ocean-effect snow over bays of the Gulf of Mexico. “Of course, [I] don’t have experience forecasting such things,” wrote one Weather Service meteorologist in an online forecast discussion. “Some thundersleet/[snow] mixed in for fun — even at the beaches.”

Thundersleet and thundersnow were observed throughout Houston and Galveston even along the beaches, with one Twitter user writing they had “seen more lightning in the last hour than [during] most of summer.”

Significant thundersnow with cloud-to-ground lightning was also observed in Lake Charles, La., the same community ravaged by back-to-back hurricanes Laura and Delta less than six months ago.

In Houston, emergency officials issued a wireless emergency alert, warning that “life-threatening road conditions will spread through Harris County” while Art Acevedo, the chief of police, reported more than 100 accidents Sunday evening, including a 10-car pileup.

map: Temperature records tied or broken so far during the Arctic outbreak. (Coolwx.com) Temperature records tied or broken so far during the Arctic outbreak. (Coolwx.com)

The cold weather is coming directly from the North Pole, via Siberia, following a disruption in the circulation of the polar vortex that occurred in January. It’s helping to spark two major storm systems, the first of which dumped snow and ice on Sunday night and Monday morning, with the second on the way for Wednesday.

Oklahoma City measured about 5 to 8 inches of snow across the metro area, a bit more than what had fallen to the west in Amarillo, Tex.

Abilene, Tex., reported a general 8 to 11 inches, with drifts to 18 inches tall. San Angelo had 10 inches. Preliminary reports also suggest 4 to 6 inches fell in Dallas-Fort Worth. If the official total at the airport comes in over 5 inches, it will be the city’s third-greatest snowstorm on record dating back to 1974.

Webcam images showed snow covering the beaches in Galveston. “We did get someone on the beach making a snow angel,” said Kent Prochazka, lead meteorologist at the Houston Weather Service office. He said the impacts of a cold snap like this one, including the threat of burst pipes in many homes and businesses, “Are so rare here that there’s a lot of preparation that needs to go on.”

Donald Jones, a meteorologist at the Weather Service in Lake Charles, La., said that area is especially vulnerable to extreme cold due to the dual hurricanes last year. “A lot of residents are living in trailers or temporary housing,” he said in an interview. “There were a lot of questions leading up to this event about pipes freezing because a lot of people now have these exposed pipes. There’s a larger homeless population than there was before the storms.”

Climate change connections

diagram, line chart: Trend in lowest temperature each year since 1970. (Climate Central) © Climate Central Trend in lowest temperature each year since 1970. (Climate Central)

The central United States is currently the most unusually cold region on the planet, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees below average in some areas. However, the planet as a whole is still unusually mild, and 2020 was on par with the previous record for the warmest year on record.

As the climate has warmed due to human activities, cold snaps have become increasingly rare and less severe, while heat waves have become far more common and intense.

In the United States, winter is the fastest-warming season. In Dallas, the lowest temperature reached each year has increased by 7.9 degrees since 1970, according to the research and communications group Climate Central.

There is also some evidence showing that rapid climate change in the Arctic, which is melting sea ice, is helping to disrupt larger-scale weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, which may make incursions of polar air more likely and lead to extreme heat waves during the summer. This is still an area of active scientific research, however.

Jason Samenow and Jef Rouner contributed to this article.

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