MISSION, Kan. — Travelers across much of the eastern United States were bracing Thursday for one of the most treacherous Christmas weekends in decades, with forecasters warning of a “bomb cyclone” that will pack heavy snow and wind while sending temperatures plummeting 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of hours.
The frigid air was moving through the central United States to the east, with windchill advisories affecting about 135 million people over the coming days, weather service meteorologist Ashton Robinson Cook said Thursday. There were already widespread disruptions in flights and train travel.
“This is not like a snow day when you were a kid,” President Joe Biden warned Thursday in the Oval Office after a briefing from federal officials. “This is serious stuff.”
Forecasters are expecting a bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm — to develop near the Great Lakes, which will increase winds and create blizzard conditions, Cook said.
In South Dakota, Rosebud Sioux Tribe emergency manager Robert Oliver said tribal authorities have been working to clear roads to deliver propane and fire wood to homes, but face a relentless wind that has created drifts over 10 feet in some places. He said five have died in recent storms, including a blizzard from last week. Oliver offered no details, saying the families are mourning.
“This weather and the amount of equipment we have — we don’t have enough,” Oliver said.
The emergency management team was able to perform 15 rescues of people stranded in their homes on Wednesday, but it had to halt efforts early Thursday morning when its hydraulic fluid on the heavy equipment froze amid a wind chill of 41 below zero.
“It’s just kind of scary for us here, we just kind of feel isolated and left out,” said Shawn Bordeaux, a Democratic state lawmaker, who said he was running out of propane heat at his home near Mission on the tribe’s reservation.
In Texas, temperatures were expected to quickly plummet Thursday, but state leaders promised there wouldn’t be a repeat of the February 2021 storm that overwhelmed the state’s power grid and was blamed for hundreds of deaths.
Gov. Greg Abbott, in a news conference Wednesday, was confident the state could handle the increased demand for energy as the temperatures dropped.
“I think trust will be earned over the next few days as people see that we have ultra-cold temperatures and the grid is going to be able to perform with ease,” he said.
The cold weather extended to El Paso and across the border into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where migrants have been camping outside or filling shelters as they await a decision on whether the U.S. will lift restrictions that have prevented many from seeking asylum.
Elsewhere in the U.S., authorities worried about the potential for power failures and warned people to take precautions to protect older and homeless people and livestock — and, if possible, to postpone travel.
“This event could be life-threatening if you are stranded with wind chills in the 30 below to 45 below zero range,” according to an online post by the National Weather Service in Minnesota, where transportation and patrol officials reported dozens of crashes and vehicles off the road.
Michigan State Police prepared to deploy additional troopers to help motorists. And along Interstate 90 in northern Indiana, crews were braced to clear as much as a foot of snow as meteorologists warned of blizzard conditions there starting Thursday evening. About 150 National Guard members also have been deployed to help snow-bound Indiana travelers.
More than 1,846 flights within, into or out of the U.S. had been canceled as of midday Thursday, according to the tracking site FlightAware. Airlines have also canceled 931 Friday flights. Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports and Denver’s airport were reporting the most cancelations. Freezing rain forced Delta to halt departures from its hub in Seattle.
Amtrak, meanwhile, canceled service on more than 20 routes, primarily in the Midwest. Service between Chicago and Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, and St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, was suspended through Christmas Day.
Some shelters in the Detroit area already were at capacity. The Detroit News reported that the 140 beds at COTS, a family-only shelter in Detroit, were full. The facility is hoping to make room for others, though, spokesperson Aisha Morrell-Ferguson told the newspaper Wednesday.
“We are not sending anyone back into this cold,” Morrell-Ferguson said. “It does not matter if we have to pull out air mattresses. We are doing everything we can, looking at alternative spaces to support the needs that may arise.”
In Montana, temperatures fell as low as 50 below zero (minus 46 Celsius) at Elk Park, a mountain pass on the Continental Divide. Several ski areas announced closures Wednesday and Thursday because of the extreme cold and winds. Others scaled back offerings. Schools also closed, and several thousand people lost power.
Near Big Sandy, Montana, rancher Rich Roth said he wasn’t too concerned about his 3,500 pregnant cows weathering the cold snap, saying “they’re pretty dang resilient animals” and are acclimated to the weather.
In famously snowy Buffalo, New York, forecasters predicted a “once-in-a-generation storm” because of heavy lake-effect snow, wind gusts as high as 65 mph (105 kph), whiteouts and the potential for extensive power outages. The NHL postponed the Buffalo Sabres’ home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and rescheduled it for March 4.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown urged people to stay home and said a state of emergency would go into effect Friday warning, amid forecasts of 70 mph wind gusts.
Denver, also no stranger to winter storms, was the coldest it has been in 32 years on Thursday, when the temperature dropped to minus 24 (minus 31 Celsius) in the morning at the airport.
In Charleston, South Carolina, a coastal flood warning was in effect Thursday. The area, a popular tourist destination for its mild winters, braced for strong winds and freezing temperatures.
The wintry weather extended into Canada, causing delays and cancellations earlier in the week at Vancouver International Airport. A major winter storm was expected Friday into Saturday in Toronto, where wind gusts as high as 60 mph (100 kph) were predicted to cause blowing snow and limited visibility, Environment Canada said.
Bleed reported from Little Rock, Arkansas. Contributing to this report were Associated Press journalists Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit, Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Jackie Quinn and Zeke Miller in Washington.