A perilous brew of winds, heavy snow and ice and plunging temperatures swept across a swath of the United States on Thursday, leaving at least five dead and upending holiday plans during one of the busiest weeks for travel.
By Thursday evening, the storm had bulled its way from the Upper Midwest — where it was regarded as dangerous and ill-timed, but nothing residents had not seen before — into the less familiar terrain of the South and Texas.
There, it delivered subfreezing, and even subzero, temperatures in places where many residents have painful memories of the devastation wrought by Winter Storm Uri in February 2021.
“We’ve had folks that have come into the shelter after double amputations as a result of Winter Storm Uri,” said Daniel Roby, the chief executive of Austin Street Center, a shelter in Dallas. “Typically in Texas, we didn’t have that kind of weather. The past couple of years, we’ve had really bad storms, so we’re learning from that experience. We know now we need to do more than we’ve ever done before.”
Forecasters said that the storm’s fury came from its scope, which covered most of the eastern half of the country, from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast, under a mass of Arctic air that brought even colder wind chills. More than 150 million people are under warnings or advisories of wind chill temperatures that could dip to 40 degrees below zero in the Intermountain West and into the Plains. In some places it could plummet as low as 70 degrees below zero, which can cause frostbite in minutes.
The Arctic blast is not unusual, but this year it has combined with a “bomb cyclone” — a rapidly intensifying storm — to bring about these extreme wind chills.
Individually, the winds, snow and subzero temperatures are not all that troubling, forecasters said, but they have coalesced into something ferocious. “What makes this storm unusual is the combination,” said Brett Borchardt, a meteorologist from the Chicago office of the National Weather Service.
The frigid temperatures create fluffier snow, which combined with 45- to 55-mile-per-hour wind gusts can make for white-out conditions and perilous travel.
At least three people in Kansas and two in Oklahoma were killed in crashes that appeared to be related to the storm, officials said. High winds and blizzard-like conditions led to the closure of a 200-mile stretch of Interstate 90, which crosses much of the northern tier of the United States.
The disruptions have rippled across the country. Roughly 16,000 flights had been canceled or delayed as of Thursday night, stranding travelers across the country.
One of them was Melissa Smuzynski, who had been stranded with her husband and daughter at the Denver airport for 17 hours.
“We were hoping to beat the Arctic blast home” from Montana to Oklahoma, she said. Instead, she and her family became stuck on a connection through Denver, which has endured a series of cold-weather calamities. Icy roads have deterred fight crews. Plane parts have frozen solid.
Ms. Smuzynski had little choice but wait.
“You sit there with your fingers crossed every time you see the gate agent pick up the phone to get on the intercom,” she said. “You just hope it’s good news, and not another delay. But you know, they can’t control it. We can’t control it. So we just try to stay positive.”
President Biden urged Americans on Thursday to heed local warnings about a storm he said would unleash “dangerous and threatening” conditions in much of the country.
“It’s not like a snow day, you know, when you’re a kid,” Mr. Biden said in brief remarks from the White House. “This is serious stuff. And my team is prepared to help communities weather this, no pun intended.”
In places where blustering winds and blankets of snow are expected, some said the storm was indeed serious but something they could take in stride.
“It’s winter time in Chicago, so we expect these things,” said Richard Guidice, Chicago’s executive director for emergency management and communications.
He added: “I do think this has the potential to be significant and something that we need to pay close attention to, which we are doing.”
In Westwood, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, where it was 4 degrees below zero, tiny icicles had formed on Bill Mendence’s eyebrows, eyelashes and mustache as he took a walk. But he said he was feeling good.
“I mean, I’ve lived through plenty of snowstorms and you can only control what you can control,” Mr. Mendence, 37, said. “We’ve got food, we’ve got warmth, and if something changes with that, then we’ll make a decision on what to do.”
Across the storm’s footprint, there was special concern for people who did not have ready access to food and warmth.
“It’s dangerous,” said Patrick Feistel, executive director of the Garden City Rescue Mission in Augusta, Ga., which offers overnight beds for men and was opening earlier and creating space for more people because of the frigid weather. “On a regular night, it might not be the difference between life and death. But it is now.”
Across much of the South, people were bracing for an unfamiliar and unsettling level of cold. In the Nashville area, temperatures were expected to fall below zero.
“It’s a madhouse in Tennessee right now, because everybody’s at the grocery store, getting their last minute shopping done,” said Regina Gammon, the owner of Hendersonville Produce, a natural foods market in a Nashville suburb. “We’re not used to seeing zero,” she added, referring to the dangerously low temperatures expected. “I’ve lived in Tennessee all my life, and zero is very uncommon.”
The plummeting temperatures reached Texas, where temperatures were falling into the teens on Thursday evening and the wind chill was expected to be well below zero in places.
The conditions have stirred up worries stemming from the storm last year that covered the state in ice and pushed the power grid to near collapse, leaving millions stranded without electricity in subfreezing temperatures and leading to more than 240 deaths.
Hunter Reeves, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Dallas, said the two storms were indeed very different. “It got a lot colder back then,” he said, and that storm brought ice and snow and kept temperatures below freezing for a week. The temperature should be above freezing by Christmas Day, Mr. Reeves said, and into the 50s by the first part of next week. “This is a quick turnaround,” he said.
Still, those fears remained.
“Oh, yeah, almost kind of like PTSD,” said Tumaini Criss, 32, who lives in Dallas, after she lost nearly everything she had last year when frozen pipes burst in her apartment.
“This time, of course, we took all the precautionary measures,” she said, including letting the faucets drip and opening cabinets to let warm air in around the pipes. She also checked to make sure her insurance was up-to-date. “We’re prepared if something does happen.”
Reporting was contributed by Robert Chiarito from Chicago, Jacey Fortin from North Augusta, S.C., Lauren Fox from Kansas City, Mo., Ann Hinga Klein from Des Moines and Michael Levenson from New York.