PIERRE, Feb 23 (AP): A brutal winter storm closed interstate highways from Arizona to Wyoming on Wednesday, trapped drivers in cars, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people and prompted the first blizzard warning in Southern California in decades — and the worst won’t be over for several days.
Few places were untouched by the wild weather, including some at the opposite extreme: long-standing record highs were broken in cities in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
The wintry mix hit hard in the northern U.S., closing schools, offices, even shutting down the Minnesota Legislature. Travel was difficult. Weather contributed to more than 1,600 U.S. flight cancellations, according to the tracking service FlightAware. More than 400 of those were due to arrive or depart from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Another 5,000-plus flights were delayed across the country.
Wyoming’s Transportation Department posted on social media that roads across much of the southern part of the state were impassable.
In the Pacific Northwest, high winds and heavy snow in the Cascade Mountains prevented search teams from reaching the bodies of three climbers killed in an avalanche on Washington’s Colchuck Peak over the weekend. Two experts from the Northwest Avalanche Center were hiking to the scene Wednesday to determine if conditions might permit a recovery attempt later this week.
Powerful winds were the biggest problem in California, toppling trees and power lines. By Wednesday evening, more than 65,000 customers in the state were without electricity, according to PowerOutage.us.
A more than 200-mile (320-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 40 from central Arizona to the New Mexico line closed due to snow, rain and wind gusts of up to 80 mph (129 kph). More than 8,000 customers were without power in Arizona.
In the northern U.S. — a region accustomed to heavy snow — the snowfall could be significant. More than 18 inches (46 centimeters) may pile up in parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the National Weather Service said Wednesday evening. According to the weather service, the biggest snow event on record in the Twin Cities was 28.4 inches (72 centimeters) from Oct. 31 through Nov. 3, 1991.
Temperatures could plunge as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 degrees Celsius) Thursday and to minus 25 F (minus 32 C) Friday in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Wind chills may fall to minus 50 F (minus 46 C), said Nathan Rick, a meteorologist in Grand Forks.
Wind gusts may reach 50 mph (80 kph) in western and central Minnesota, resulting in “significant blowing and drifting snow with whiteout conditions in open areas,” the weather service said.
The weather even prompted about 90 churches in western Michigan to cancel Ash Wednesday services, WZZM-TV reported.
The storm will make its way toward the East Coast later this week. Places that don’t get snow may get dangerous amounts of ice. Forecasters expect up to a half-inch (1.3 centimeters) of ice in parts of southern Michigan, northern Illinois and some eastern states.
The potential ice storm has power company officials on edge. Nearly 1,500 line workers are ready to be deployed if the ice causes outages, said Matt Paul, executive vice president of distribution operations for Detroit-based DTE Electric. He said a half-inch of ice could cause hundreds of thousands of outages.
A half-inch of ice covering a wire “is the equivalent of having a baby grand piano on that single span of wire, so the weight is significant,” Paul said.
More than 192,000 customers in Michigan and nearly 89,000 in Illinois were without electricity Wednesday evening, according to PowerOutage.us.