The central US was caught in the grip of a historic winter storm yesterday, buried by drifting snow and sleet that closed major highways and grounded thousands of flights.
The storm — one of the largest winter storms since the 1950s, according to NASA — stretched for more than 3,000km from Texas to the northeastern state of Maine, and forecasters warned trying to get around could be deadly.
“Do not travel!” the National Weather Service warned.
Blizzard, winter storm and freezing rain warnings were issued for more than half of the 50 US states, and thunderstorms and driving rain drenched the warmer, southern end of the storm in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Officials warned the public to stay at home rather than try to brave the crippling and potentially record-breaking storm.
“Travel will be dangerous and life-threatening due to dramatically reduced visibilities and bitter cold wind chills,” the National Weather Service said. “If you become stranded expect to spend the entire night in your vehicle as rescuers likely will not be able to reach you.”
High winds and freezing rain turned roads into deadly ice rinks and knocked down trees and power lines. By late on Tuesday, more than 60,000 customers had lost power in Indiana alone, in addition to 22,000 in Ohio, local media said.
Forecasts warned of dangerously cold temperatures, blinding snow and massive drifts as high as 1.8m to 2.4m.
“Lurking behind this impressive winter storm is a powerful shot of Arctic air as a frigid surface high drops down from central Canada,” the weather service said.
States of emergency were declared in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma and the National Guard was called out to help rescue stranded motorists.
Emergency shelters were also set up for people whose homes lost power, while thousands of schools and government offices were closed and many businesses shuttered.
Snow had already piled up to as high as 51cm in Oklahoma by 3am GMT and was falling fast and hard in parts of Texas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri and Kansas.
FlightAware reported that airlines grounded more than 6,700 flights on Tuesday and had canceled almost 4,000 before dawn yesterday.
Chicago was expected to be among the hardest hit with up to 60cm of snow and officials warned plows would not be able keep the streets clear. Illinois State Police said much of the state’s highway system was snow covered with large stretches “impassible.”
In Missouri, where at least one woman was reported killed after losing control of her car, the state closed Interstate 70 from one end of the state to the other.
“I can’t tell you how many slide-offs we’ve had,” Captain Greg Kindle of the Missouri State Patrol told the New York Times. “We’re at the point where we’re not towing them out.”
Tulsa, Oklahoma, was reported at a near standstill after a record 35.5cm of snow was blown into deep drifts and collapsed the roof of a Hard Rock casino.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of cars stranded in the city, from private to emergency vehicles,” Paul Strizek of the city’s public works department told the Tulsa World newspaper.