Dec 23 (Reuters) – More than two-thirds of the U.S. population was under an extreme weather alert on Friday as a deep freeze enveloped much of the country ahead of the holiday weekend, thwarting travel plans, knocking out power to homes and businesses and causing at least three deaths.
With a column of bitter cold that stretched from Texas to Montana starting to march eastward, more than 240 million people were under weather advisories on Friday, the National Weather Service said. Hard-freeze warnings were posted in parts of the Southern states of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
In Kentucky, two people were killed in car accidents and a homeless person died, Governor Andy Beshear announced on Friday.
“Please stay home and stay safe,” he said on Twitter.
Numbing cold intensified by high winds even extended to the U.S.-Mexico border, bringing single-digit wind chill temperatures to the border city of El Paso, Texas.
Farther north, heavy snowfall was forecast in parts of Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York, including upwards of 35 inches in Buffalo, Weather Service meteorologist Ashton Robinson Cook said.
The map of existing or impending wintry hazards “depicts one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever,” the agency said.
The extreme weather disrupted households and holiday plans just days before Christmas. About 1.5 million U.S. homes and businesses were without power on Friday, according to tracking site Poweroutage.us. About 187,000 customers were without power in North Carolina alone, where strong winds have hampered restoration efforts.
In Maine, with about a tenth of North Carolina’s population, power was out to more than 114,000 customers Friday afternoon.
Severe winds, ice and snow also upended commercial air traffic during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
More than 4,000 U.S. flights were canceled Friday, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. About 500 flights into or out of Seattle’s major airport were axed as a separate storm system brought ice and freezing rain to the Pacific Northwest.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) had estimated that 112.7 million people planned to travel 50 miles (80 km) or more from home between Friday and Jan. 2. That number was likely to drop due to treacherous weather complicating air and road travel going into the weekend.
Buffalo-area officials in New York instituted a driving ban.
“If there’s any good news, it’s that the storm has moved quickly over some areas,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told MSNBC on Friday. Many airports, such as Denver, are expected to bounce back quickly from a wave of delays and cancellations. Other hubs like Chicago could recover later on Friday, he said.
Last-minute holiday gift purchases may also have slim chances of reaching their destinations by Christmas. FedEx Corp (FDX.N) said on Friday customers can expect potential delays for some package deliveries across the country due to disruptions at hubs in Tennessee and Indianapolis.
Weather forecasters said the blizzard over the Midwest had formed into a “bomb cyclone” — a phenomenon that occurs when the air pressure drops drastically within a 24-hour period and speeds up a storm’s intensity. It could produce blinding snow from the northern Plains and Great Lakes region to the upper Mississippi Valley and western New York state.
Along the east coast, rain and westerly winds pushing sea water to shore could cause 3 feet of coastal flooding, with flash freezing and black ice possible, the Weather Service said.
The lowest temperature in the U.S. on Friday morning was recorded in Havre, Montana, registering minus 38 Fahrenheit (minus 38 Celsius). But forecasters predict some relief over the next days. In Montana and across the northern Rockies and High Plains, temperatures could rebound by 40 to 60 degrees over the weekend.
For now, meteorologist Cook said: “Bundle up and stay indoors if you can, and check on your neighbors.”
Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Steve Gorman, Rich McKay Susan Heavey, Laila Kearney, Scott DiSavino, Jonathan Oatis, Aleksandra Michalska and Aurora Ellis
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