arctic storm elliott, which has hit much of the United States this week, has already caused at least seven deaths in the country, while the freezing temperatures it has caused are expected to worsen the Christmas weekend. If the forecasts come true, these Christmas holidays will be the coldest since records have been recorded in various cities, from Pennsylvania to Florida. The storm, with strong winds and precipitation, heavy snow and frost, stretching for more than 3,200 km from Texas to Canada’s Quebec, has left more than 1.5 million people without power in the US and Canada. The US authorities have decreed a state of alert, a measure that affects more than two thirds of the country’s population, 240 million people. In some parts of the State of Montana temperatures have dropped to 45 degrees below zero.
“More than 240 million people are affected by weather alerts,” said the National Weather Service (NWS in its acronym in English). These extreme temperatures are mainly due to the effects of an arctic air mass, the so-called polar vortex, a large rotating mass of cold air that usually encircles the Arctic, but occasionally moves south and extends temperatures icy beyond the pole.
The coincidence of this meteorological phenomenon with the Christmas celebrations has caused thousands of cancellations and diversions of air traffic. On Friday, 9,000 domestic flights were cancelled, slightly less than the 11,000 journeys canceled the day before, while the roads of half the country were covered in snow and ice, which is behind at least four of the seven deaths related to the storm of the that has been reported so far.
Two motorists were killed and many others injured Friday in a 50-vehicle pileup that closed the Ohio Turnpike in both directions amid a heavy blizzard near the city of Toledo. The authorities had to evacuate the occupants of the vehicles by bus to prevent them from freezing to death. Two other people also died from traffic accidents in neighboring Kentucky, while a homeless person died of hypothermia. “Please stay home and stay safe,” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said on Twitter, announcing these deaths.
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), some 12 million people planned to travel by car on journeys of at least 80 kilometers between December 23 and January 2. On various roads in the country, civil protection volunteers distributed blankets on Friday to help blocked motorists face the cold.
The frosts have also reached large urban centers in the country, such as New York, where this Saturday morning temperatures were expected to plummet to 10º below zero. The city of Buffalo and its surrounding county, on the shores of Lake Erie in western New York, have banned traffic and all three Buffalo-area border bridges have been closed to inbound traffic from Canada due to conditions weather. The weather forecast points to the capitals of Florida and Georgia – Tallahassee and Atlanta, respectively – registering the coldest highs on Christmas Eve since they are documented. The capital, Washington, is expected to experience the coldest December 24 this Saturday since 1906.
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President Joe Biden warned Americans on Thursday to take the storm “extremely seriously” and follow the recommendations of the authorities. “This is really a very serious weather alert. And it goes from Oklahoma to Wyoming, and from Wyoming to Maine. And there are real consequences, so I encourage everyone to follow the warnings of local authorities,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “This is not like the snowfall we used to see when we were little, it is very serious.” The NWS has described the storm as “once in a generation” and has forecast a “major freak storm” to last through Christmas weekend, with snow, high winds and abnormally “dangerous” low temperatures.
Bad weather has also forced municipal authorities to open reception centers in libraries and police stations, while setting up temporary shelters for the homeless. The challenge has been compounded by the influx of thousands of immigrants who have crossed the US southern border in recent weeks.
“We are used to it”
The coldest place in the country on Friday was remote northern Montana, near the Canadian border, where the mercury dipped as low as minus 45 degrees. “It’s been colder, yes, and I guess it’s cold outside,” Tyler Schaub, manager of Rod’s Drive Inn restaurant, told Reuters. “We’re used to it here, but even so, it’s better not to stay outside too long.” Exposure to temperatures like those experienced in Montana can cause severe hypothermia and lead to death within minutes. In southern Georgia and much of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, authorities have issued frostbite advisories. In New England, wind surge caused coastal flooding.
Meteorologists have explained that the storm has mutated into a “bomb cyclone” in the Midwest. This phenomenon has its origin in a rapid and drastic drop in atmospheric pressure, which forms a kind of hurricane. In some areas of the Great Lakes, on the border between the United States and Canada, more than 30 centimeters of snow fell on Friday. According to meteorologist Brian Hurley, quoted by Reuters, the problem was not so much “the snow that fell, but the snow that flew”, alluding to the freezing blizzard that even prevented vision in large areas of that region.
Rising demand for heating and storm damage to transmission systems have also strained America’s energy systems. On Friday, millions of American homes and businesses lost power, according to the website Poweroutage.us. Heating and energy prices skyrocketed due to inclement weather.
“If there’s any good news, it’s that the storm has moved quickly in some areas,” US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told MSNBC on Friday.
The disruption of the Christmas holidays for millions of Americans has also reached the delivery of gifts purchased online or sent by mail, which have little chance of reaching their destination before Christmas. FedEx, United Parcel Service, the US Postal Service and Amazon alerted their customers that bad weather was disrupting key operations in Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, the two Dakotas and other areas hard hit by cold and blizzards.
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