A fearsome storm spread a smothering shroud of white over nearly half the US, snarling transportation, burying parts of the Midwest under 60cm of snow and causing at least 12 deaths.
Tens of millions of people stayed home. The hardy few who ventured out faced howling winds that turned snowflakes into face-stinging needles. Chicago’s 51cm of snow was the city’s third-largest amount on record. In New York’s Central Park, the pathways resembled skating rinks.
The storm that resulted from two clashing air masses was, if not unprecedented, extraordinarily rare for its size and ferocious strength.
“A storm that produces a swath of 20-inch [50cm] snow is really something we’d see once every 50 years — maybe,” National Weather Service meteorologist Thomas Spriggs said.
Across the storm’s path, lonely commuters struggled against drifts of more than a meter deep in eerily silent streets, some of which had not seen a plow’s blade since the snow started a day earlier. Parkas and ski goggles normally reserved for the slopes became essential for getting to work.
Although skies were beginning to clear by mid-afternoon on Wednesday over much of the country’s midsection, the storm promised to leave a blast of bitter cold in its wake, with overnight temperatures in northern parts of the Midwest were expected to fall dramatically.
The 12 fatalities included a homeless man who burned to death on New York’s Long Island as he tried to light cans of cooking fuel and a woman in Oklahoma City who was killed while being pulled behind a truck on a sled that hit a guard rail.
Airport operations slowed to a crawl across the US, and flight cancellations reached 13,000 for the week, making this system the most disruptive so far this winter. A massive post-Christmas blizzard led to about 10,000 cancelations.
In the winter-weary Northeast, thick ice caused several structures to collapse, including a gas station canopy on Long Island and an airplane hangar near Boston. In at least two places, workers heard the structures beginning to crack and narrowly escaped.
More than a half-dozen states began digging out from up to 30cm of snow that made roads treacherous and left hundreds of thousands of homes without power.
Chicago public schools canceled classes for a second straight day. And the city’s iconic Lake Shore Drive remained shutdown, nearly a day after drivers abandoned hundreds of snowbound vehicles.
The famous freeway appeared as if rush hour had been stopped in time, with three lanes of cars cluttering the pavement amid snowdrifts that stood as high as the windshields. Bulldozers worked to clear the snow from around the cars, which were then plucked out by tow trucks one by one.
Elsewhere, utility crews raced to restore power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where freezing rain and ice brought down electrical lines. Rolling blackouts were implemented across Texas, due to high demand during a rare ice storm.
Texas was forced to seek help from Mexico’s state electricity company after a wave of rolling power outages because of the unusually cold temperatures. An energy transfer of 280 megawatts began at midday on Wednesday via northern Mexican border cities.
In Canada, heavy snow canceled about a quarter of the 1,200 scheduled flights at Toronto’s international airport, closed schools, and caused dangerous driving conditions due to drifting snow.