By CAROLYN THOMPSON and JAKE BLEIBERG
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — A battering winter storm left 1.7 million homes and businesses without power across the United States on Saturday, as millions more people were left to worry how the prospect of further outages would effect holiday and travel plans.
The blinding blizzards, freezing rain and frigid cold that enveloped much of the country knocked out power from Maine to Seattle, while major electricity grid operator warned the 65 million people it serves across the eastern U.S. that rolling blackouts might be required.
Across the country, officials have attributed at least a dozen deaths to exposure, car crashes on icy and snow covered roads and effects of the storm, including two people who died in their homes outside Buffalo, New York, when emergency crews couldn’t reach them amid historic blizzard conditions.
Pennsylvania-based PJM Interconnection said power plants are having difficulty operating in the frigid weather and has asked residents in 13 states to refrain from unnecessary use of electricity. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states, directed local power companies on Saturday to implement planned interruptions to “ensure power system reliability.”
Across the six New England states, almost 400,000 electric customers remained without power on Saturday morning, with some utilities warning it could be days before power is restored. In North Carolina, more than 415,000 customers were without power, according to poweroutage.us.
The emergency call for system-wide conservation from PJM Interconnection advised residents to set thermostats lower than usual, to postpone use of major appliances like stoves and dishwashers and to turn off nonessential lights. Commercial and industrial power users have also been asked to cut back. Utility officials said simultaneous increased demand across its electric system came as some power plants are having difficulty operating in the extreme cold. They warned of rolling blackouts.
“It’ll be short-lived, we’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but it is a real possibility,” said Mike Bryson, PJM’s senior vice president for operations. It covers all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Across the country, the storm forced the closure of highways and crashes, exposure and storm damage have killed at least a dozen people, officials said.
Two people died in their homes in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga on Friday when emergency crews could not reach them in time to treat their medical emergencies, according to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
At a weather briefing late Saturday morning, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul described the snowstorm hitting western parts of the state as “one of the worst in history.”
It has impacted transportation in parts of western New York, with the Buffalo Niagara International Airport closed through Monday morning, and some roads closed through Christmas day, Hochul said.
Almost every fire truck in Buffalo, she said, was stranded and stuck in snow as of Saturday morning.
“No matter how many emergency vehicles we have, they cannot get through the conditions as we speak,” she said.
Four died in a massive pileup involving some 50 vehicles on the Ohio Turnpike. A Kansas City, Missouri, driver was killed Thursday after skidding into a creek, and three others died Wednesday in separate crashes on icy northern Kansas roads.
A woman in Vermont died in a hospital Friday after a tree broke in the high winds and fell on her house. Police in Colorado Springs said they found the dead body of a person who appeared to be homeless as subzero temperatures and snow descended upon the region.
Adding to the woes were power outages that by early Saturday were still affecting more than 1.7 million homes and businesses, according to the website PowerOutage, which tracks utility reports.
The storm was nearly unprecedented in its scope, stretching from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. About 60% of the U.S. population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, the National Weather Service said.
Freezing rain coated much of the Pacific Northwest in a layer of ice, while people in the Northeast faced the threat of coastal and inland flooding.
The frigid temperatures and gusty winds were expected to produce “dangerously cold wind chills across much of the central and eastern U.S. this holiday weekend,” the weather service said, adding that the conditions “will create a potentially life-threatening hazard for travelers that become stranded.”
As millions of Americans were traveling ahead of Christmas, more than 5,700 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were canceled Friday, according to the tracking site FlightAware. While in Mexico, migrants camped near the U.S. border in unusually cold temperatures as they awaited a U.S. Supreme Court decision on pandemic-era restrictions that prevent many from seeking asylum.
Forecasters said a bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm — had developed near the Great Lakes, stirring up blizzard conditions, including heavy winds and snow.
Even people in Florida were braced for unusually chilly weather as rare freeze warnings were issued for large parts of the state over the holiday weekend.
Associated Press journalist Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania contributed to this report.
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