Tens of thousands of customers in Texas were without power Thursday morning as a major winter storm continued moving east across the United States, bringing snow, sleet and freezing rain to Midwestern and Southern states. The National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky. was warning of “impossible” travel conditions as local authorities urged drivers to stay off the roads.
More than 110 million Americans from the Permian Basin of Texas to Maine’s northern border are included in winter weather advisories or winter storm and ice storm warnings, a stretch of weather alerts blanketing a swath some 2,000 miles long.
Approximately 60,000 power outages were reported in Texas Thursday morning, along with about 26,000 in Arkansas and 42,000 in Tennessee, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages nationwide. The outages were mostly due to ice accumulation.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday that “no one can guarantee” there won’t be power outages as icy weather hit the state in what is the first significant test of the state’s power grid a year after a historic freeze killed hundreds of residents and left millions without power for days.
Although Abbott said in November that he “can guarantee the lights will stay on” in the state the next time severe winter weather rolled through, the governor cautioned Tuesday that he could not promise that “load shed” events would not unfold this week. A load shed occurs when electricity demand above available supply results in rolling blackouts to keep the state power grid from collapsing. Load-shedding happened on a large scale in the state last year.
Substantial accumulations of ice, enough to snap tree limbs and trigger power outages, were expected in a swath from near Dallas through Little Rock, Memphis, Louisville and Cincinnati. To the north, heavy snowfall, exceeding 6 inches, was projected in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Buffalo and Burlington, Vt. into Friday.
The National Weather Service warned of “hazardous road conditions” throughout the affected areas, which it said would likely see “well below average” temperatures “for at least the next couple of days.”
Parts of Mississippi and the Great Plains could record temperatures 20 to 40 degrees below average, the Weather Service said. It called the storm “large, prolonged, and significant.”
In the Deep South, the Weather Service projected elevated chances for severe thunderstorms, particularly in a zone from southeast Mississippi to southwest Alabama where it said “a few tornadoes are possible” Thursday afternoon and evening.
Heavy freezing rain is ongoing in northeast Texas, eastern Arkansas, western Tennesee, western Kentucky and southwest Ohio; including Little Rock, Memphis and Cincinnati.
Farther north, a deeper cold air mass more stubbornly entrenched has been supportive of heavy snow, with a foot or more falling in spots. The heaviest snow Thursday morning stretched from roughly St. Louis to Cleveland.
Arctic high pressure parked over the Dakotas is supplying frigid air for a front that stretches from southeastern Texas through Nashville to Albany, N.Y. and eastern Quebec.
Moisture riding up and over the cold front from the south is falling into a subfreezing air mass, hardening into ice on contact and quickly accreting into a hazardous glaze.
The freezing line sagged farther south overnight than originally forecast, prompting the Weather Service to extend ice storm warnings into northwest Tennessee, including the city of Clarksville northwest of Nashville. That’s bolstered the risk of more significant icing in the 50 to 100 mile wide strip of freezing rain which will largely parallel the Intestate 40 corridor in eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee, as well as the Ohio River in northern Kentucky, on Thursday.
Meanwhile, flooding rain has been falling on the system’s warm side in the Deep South, with flash flood watches up in northern Alabama, northeast Georgia southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina.
Snow and ice totals so far
The snow had already piled up to impressive and disruptive levels as of Wednesday night, with dozens of locations logging double-digit accumulations. Leading the pack was Colorado Springs, Co., where 22 inches had piled up.
Denver saw 13.6 inches northeast of town, with a foot in Boulder. The parent energetic disturbance that ejected out of the Rockies was the prelude to the larger system sprawled across the country. Lakewood, Co. saw 10 inches, with 8 inches measured in Castle Rock. Canon Plaza, New Mexico had 21 inches.
Farther east, Chicago was initially predicted to be right on the fringe of snowfall, and the atmosphere delivered — Chicago’s Midway airport tallied 11 inches of snow, while O’Hare International only wound up with 5.6, roughly half that.
In Indiana, Akron was up to a foot and Cedar Lake, a bit south of Gary, had accumulated 12.4 inches. Lafayette measured 8.5 inches, and Fort Wayne sat at 5 inches. South Bend picked up 11 inches.
Kansas also saw hefty totals, with a half foot at Wichita’s Eisenhower Airport and 8.5 inches in Augusta. A narrow strip of western Kansas was hit by a surprise 27 inches just a week and a half ago that models didn’t see coming, falling just shy of records.
Kansas City had 3.8 inches, and St. Louis was up to an inch — through Troy, about an hour to the northwest, reported 6.5 inches.
The ice event is underway now but lagged the snow by about twelve hours, meaning totals will likely increase as Thursday wears on, but some areas have already seen significant icing. Up to a half-inch of ice was reported in eastern Oklahoma, near the border with Arkansas Nearly one-quarter inch had accumulated in Fort Smith, Ark. and a tenth of an inch in Cincinnati.
In Texas, Hunt, Fannin, and Collin counties north and east of Dallas reported tree damage from overnight icing while the Weather Service reported around one-tenth of an inch accumulated near Wichita Falls.
The heaviest icing is expected in central and eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, northern Kentucky and parts of southern Ohio Thursday. Where icing continues, a half inch of additional accumulation is possible in the hardest-hit areas.
Frozen precipitation should end in Texas Thursday afternoon. Houston could see a brief period of icy precipitation while Dallas-Ft. Worth could flip to snow as mid-level temperatures cool.
The most substantial icy precipitation will shift from the Tennesseee Valley into West Virginia and central Pennsylvania Thursday night into Friday morning. Pittsburgh and State College could see significant icing overnight before precipitation flips to snow.
Snow will be continue in southeast Missouri, southern Illinois near Cape Girardeau, Indiana near and especially north of Indianapolis and into the northern third of Ohio, particularly around Toledo through Thursday night.
Extreme northwest Pennsylvania, Upstate New York around the Finger Lakes and the Tug Hill Plateau and Vermont will see snowfall throughout Thursday and continuing well into Friday. The snow will enter Maine and New Hampshire in northern New England Thursday afternoon.
The heftiest snow totals will be realized just north of the freezing rain and sleet line, with another 6 to 12 inches possible, especially in areas that haven’t seen snow yet into the interior Northeast.
The storm’s final act comes Friday in eastern New England, when morning rain will transition to freezing rain, sleet and all snow as temperatures crash into the 20s during the evening. A “flash freeze” overnight into early Saturday will cause any remnant moisture and slushy slop on the roadways to harden and freeze.
Timothy Bella and Paulina Firozi contributed to this story.