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Ferocious winter weather could set low-temp records in US heartland

As the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend began, the weather forecast for the U.S. was a crazy quilt of color-coded advisories.
Ferocious winter weather could set low-temp records in US heartland
Posted at 6:01 AM, Jan 14, 2024

Icy winter weather blanketed the U.S. on Saturday as a wave of Arctic storms threatened to break low-temperature records in the heartland, spread cold and snow from coast to coast and cast a chill over everything from football playoffs to presidential campaigns.

As the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend began, the weather forecast was a crazy quilt of color-coded advisories, from an ice storm warning in Oregon to a blizzard warning in the northern Plains to high wind warnings in New Mexico.

"It's, overall, been a terrible, terrible winter. And it came out of nowhere — two days," Dan Abinana said as he surveyed a snowy Des Moines, Iowa. He moved to the state from Tanzania as a child years ago, but said "you never get used to the snow."

The harsh weather in Oregon played a role in three deaths.

In Portland, medical examiners were investigating a hypothermia death as freezing rain and heavy snow fell in a city more accustomed to mild winter rains, and hundreds of people took shelter overnight at warming centers.

Portland Fire and Rescue also reported the death of a woman in her early 30s on Saturday afternoon. An RV caught fire when a small group of people used an open flame stove to keep warm inside and a tree fell on the vehicle, causing the fire to spread. Three other people escaped, including one with minor injuries, but the woman was trapped inside, the fire department said.

Authorities in Lake Oswego, Oregon, said a large tree fell on a home during high winds Saturday, killing an older man on the second floor.

Weather-related deaths already were reported earlier in the week in California, Idaho, Illinois and Wisconsin.

SEE MORE: Body of skier retrieved from Idaho backcountry after avalanche

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen announced a state of emergency, citing "very dangerous conditions." Up to 2 feet of snow fell in some areas over the past week, and wind chills were well below zero.

"This event is not going away tonight. It's not going away tomorrow," Pillen said at a news conference "It's going to take a number of days."

About 1,700 miles of Nebraska highways were closed. State police assisted more than 400 stranded motorists, said Col. John A. Bolduc, head of the Nebraska State Patrol.

In Iowa, cars were stuck for five hours in blowing snow on Interstate 80 after semitrailers jackknifed in slippery conditions. State troopers had handled 86 crashes and 535 motorist-assist calls since Friday, State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla said.

Road crews were "working the snow-blowers like crazy," Dinkla said, but high winds were blowing snow right back onto roadways.

Governors from New York to Louisiana warned residents to be prepared for worrisome weather.

Parts of Montana fell below minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit Saturday morning, and the National Weather Service said similar temperatures were expected as far as northern Kansas, with minus 50 F possible in the Dakotas. In St. Louis, the National Weather Service warned of rare and "life-threatening" cold.

"We've had, now, multiple back-to-back storms" parading across the country, weather service meteorologist Zach Taylor said. That typically happens at least a couple of times in the U.S. winter.

Still, to Eboni Jones of Des Moines, it felt unusual for "how much we're getting all within one week."

"It's pretty crazy out," Jones said while shoveling snow.

Grant Rampton, 25, also of Des Moines, braved a wind chill of minus 20 F to go sledding with friends at a golf course, fighting off the cold by wearing layers of clothing and insulated socks and keeping in constant movement.

"It's a great state to be in," said Rampton, a lifelong Iowan. "There's not as much to do, in winter especially, but you can make your own fun, like out here, sledding with your friends."

The temperature in parts of Iowa could dip as low as minus 14 F on Monday, when the state's caucuses kick off the presidential primary season. And forecasters said it would be Wednesday before below-zero windchills go away.

Republicans Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump all canceled campaign events because of the storm.

Electricity was out Saturday afternoon in hundreds of thousands of households and businesses, mainly in Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin, according to poweroutage.us.

In Yankton, South Dakota, the temperature was minus 15 F in the evening. Police there said plows were "freezing and breaking," so they would not operate until conditions improve. The Minnehaha County Highway Department also pulled its plows "due to low visibility and extreme cold temps."

In other places, if the problem wasn't snow and wind, it was water: Record high tides hit the Northeast, flooding some homes in Maine and New Hampshire.

The coastal Northeast was pounded by 1 to 2 inches of rain in the morning, and a storm surge amplified what was already the month's highest tide, National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Cempa said. In Portland, Maine, a gauge recorded a 14.57-foot difference between high and average low tide, topping a prior record of 14.17 feet set in 1978.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul warned of a "dangerous storm" as she announced that the Buffalo Bills-Pittsburgh Steelers NFL playoff game was postponed from Sunday to Monday. Residents of the county that includes Buffalo were told to stay off the roads starting at 9 p.m. Saturday, with the forecast calling for 1 to 2 feet or more of snow and winds gusting as high as 65 mph.

SEE MORE: Chiefs grab playoff win over Miami in 4th coldest game in NFL history

Kansas City, Missouri, hosted a frigid playoff game Saturday night between the Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins. The temperature at kickoff was minus 2 F, with the wind making it feel like minus 24 F. It was the coldest game on record at Arrowhead Stadium, and the fourth-coldest NFL game ever played. 

Still, hundreds of fans lined up hours beforehand outside the Arrowhead Stadium parking lots, some with ski goggles, heated socks and other winter gear they bought for the game.

Chiefs season ticket holder Keaton Schlatter and his friends had considered trying to sell their seats, as many other fans did.

"But we decided that it's all part of the experience, and we didn't want to miss it," said Schlatter, of West Des Moines, Iowa.

In Oregon, Robert Banks, who has been homeless for several years, stood outside his blue tent along a Portland street in the afternoon, wearing one glove as sleet pelted him. He said he wanted to secure his belongings before making his way to a shelter.

"I lived in Alaska for a number of years," he said. "The wind and the wet cold is different from dry tundra cold ... oh, it is bone-chilling."

The snow was welcome in at least one place.

Philip Spitzley of Lake Odessa, Michigan, woke up Friday to 95 small snowmen in his front yard to celebrate his 95th birthday. Fifteen family members and a neighbor collaborated on the snow-packing job, which took about 90 minutes.

"I was quite surprised," Spitzley said. "I sat right here watching my TV and didn't know they were out there. Then I saw flashlights."

The display has turned into a spectacle as motorists slow down for a look. And with days of cold weather ahead, "they'll be there awhile," Spitzley said.


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