AMANCAI BIRABEN and JIM SALTER
A brutal winter storm knocked out power in California, closed interstate highways from Arizona to Wyoming and prompted nearly 1,500 flight cancellations Wednesday — and the worst won’t be over for several days.
In the Los Angeles area, a weather pattern change will bring rain and snow especially Thursday and Friday, with a chance of continuing over the weekend.
According to the National Weather Service, rain totals through the weekend may range from 2 to 4 inches and snow levels will lower to unusually low levels, possibly bringing snow down to 1,000 feet.
Up to a few inches of snow is possible from 1,000-2,500 feet, 1 to 3 feet possible for 4,000 to 6,000 feet, and up to 7 feet above 6,000 feet. Gusty north to northwest winds are likely preceding the rain, with mountain and foothills reaching 55 to 75 mph, and coasts and valleys reaching 35-55 mph. High temperatures will be 10-20 and locally 25 degrees below normal. Wind chills of 10-20, locally down to -5 degrees in the mountains are possible during the strongest winds.
Few places were untouched by the wild weather, some at the opposite extreme. Record highs were set from the mid-Atlantic states down through Florida, with some places expected to reach up to 40 degrees above normal.
The wintry mix was hitting hard in the northern tier of the nation, closing schools, offices, even shutting down the Minnesota Legislature. Travel was difficult. Weather contributed to nearly 1,500 U.S. flight cancellations, according to the tracking service FlightAware. More than 400 of those were due to arrive or depart from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Another 3,800-plus were delayed across the country.
The roads were just as bad. “A major winter storm and multi-day closures are likely on Interstates and secondary roads throughout Wyoming!” the state Transportation Department said on Facebook.
It wasn’t much better in neighboring states.
“Sometimes it’s physically impossible to keep up with Mother Nature,” said North Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Wade Kadrmas.
He warned those who venture out to dress appropriately. Often, when motorists get stranded, “They don’t have a winter jacket. They might be wearing shorts and flip-flops, just thinking they’re going to get from point A to point B and nothing is going to go wrong,” he said.
Kelly Cross has spent his entire 60 years in South Dakota, but even he tires of the wintry weather that often spills well into spring. Besides the regular snow shoveling at his Pierre store, K&C Western Wear, he’s gone through pounds of salt to keep the walkway clear. The company of his terrier, Penny, makes the slog to work tolerable.
“She comes with me every day,” Cross said.
In the Pacific Northwest, high winds and heavy snow in the Cascade Mountains prevented search teams from reaching the bodies of three climbers killed in an avalanche on Washington’s Colchuck Peak over the weekend. Two experts from the Northwest Avalanche Center were hiking to the scene Wednesday to determine if conditions might permit a recovery attempt later this week.
Powerful winds were the biggest problem in California, toppling trees and power lines. By Wednesday afternoon, more than 88,000 customers in the state were without electricity, according to PowerOutage.us.
A 1-year-old child was critically injured when a redwood crashed onto a home in Boulder Creek, a community in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, KTVU reported. Chief Mark Bingham of the local fire protection district said crews had to cut up the tree to free the victim.
A blizzard warning was issued for the mountains of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, effective from 4 a.m. Thursday to 4 p.m. Saturday, the National Weather Service said.
“Nearly the entire population of CA will be able to see snow from some vantage point later this week if they look in the right direction (i.e., toward the highest hills in vicinity),” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain wrote on Twitter.
A more than 200-mile stretch of Interstate 40 from central Arizona to the New Mexico line closed due to snow, ran and wind gusts of up to 80 mph. Thousands were without power in Arizona.
In the northern U.S. — a region accustomed to heavy snow — the snowfall could be historic. More than 20 inches may pile up in parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the National Weather Service said. According to the weather service, the biggest snow event on record in the Twin Cities was 28.4 inches from Oct. 31 through Nov. 3, 1991. The second-largest was 21.1 inches of snow from Nov. 29 through Dec. 1, 1985.
Temperatures could plunge as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit Thursday and to minus 25 F Friday in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Wind chills may fall to minus 50 F, said Nathan Rick, a meteorologist in Grand Forks.
Wind gusts may reach 50 mph in western and central Minnesota, resulting in “significant blowing and drifting snow with whiteout conditions in open areas,” the weather service said.
The storm will make its way toward the East Coast later this week. Places that don’t get snow may get dangerous amounts of ice. Forecasters expect up to a half-inch of ice in parts of southern Michigan, northern Illinois and some eastern states.
The potential ice storm has power company officials on edge. Nearly 1,500 line workers are ready to be deployed if the ice causes outages, said Matt Paul, executive vice president of distribution operations for Detroit-based DTE Electric. He said a half-inch of ice could cause hundreds of thousands of outages.
A half-inch of ice covering a wire “is the equivalent of having a baby grand piano on that single span of wire, so the weight is significant,” Paul said.
As the northern U.S. deals with a winter blast, National Weather Service Meteorologist Richard Bann said some mid-Atlantic and Southeastern cities set new high temperature marks by several degrees.
The high in Lexington, Kentucky, reached 76 F, shattering the Feb. 22 mark of 70 F set 101 years ago. Nashville, Tennessee, reached 78 F, topping by 4 degrees the record set in 1897. Cincinnati, Atlanta and Mobile, Alabama, were among many other places seeing record highs.
It won’t last long. Washington, D.C., could reach a record 80 F on Thursday. Then, a cold front will move in and by Saturday, the high will barely make it into the low 40s, Bann said.
In Fargo, North Dakota, the Wednesday morning temperature was minus 11 F, so server Michelle Wilson wasn’t surprised by the small crowd at the Denny’s where she works.
“When the wind picks up and you’re in a flat land like North Dakota, it’s whiteout conditions immediately,” Wilson said.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Eugene Johnson in Seattle, Corey Williams in Detroit, Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City, Utah, David Koenig in Dallas, John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Julie Walker in New York, Amy Forliti in Minneapolis, and Steve Karnowski in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed to this report.