CHICAGO – The central United States was caught in the grip of a historic winter storm Wednesday, buried by drifting snow and sleet that ground air and road travel to a halt.
The storm — one of the largest winter storms since the 1950s, according to NASA — stretched for more than 3,000 kilometers (2,000 miles) from Texas to the northeastern state of Maine, and forecasters warned trying to get around could be deadly.
“Do not travel!,” the National Weather Service warned.
Blizzard, winter storm and freezing rain warnings were issued for more than half of the 50 US states, and thunderstorms and driving rain drenched the warmer, southern end of the storm in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Officials warned the public to stay at home rather than try to brave the crippling and potentially record-breaking storm.
“Travel will be dangerous and life-threatening due to dramatically reduced visibilities and bitter cold wind chills,” the National Weather Service warned.
“If you become stranded expect to spend the entire night in your vehicle as rescuers likely will not be able to reach you.”
High winds and freezing rain turned roads into deadly ice rinks and knocked down trees and power lines.
Television footage showed the fierce winds made even walking difficult, with pedestrians blown off their feet as they braved white-out conditions and tried to cross icy roads.
Downed power lines and ice led to widespread power cuts, with 95,000 people without electricity in Illinois, 50,000 in Indiana and another tens of thousands around Cleveland, Ohio.
The residents waking without power faced another layer of danger, as coming in behind the storm was a blast of frigid air.
“Lurking behind this impressive winter storm is a powerful shot of Arctic air as a frigid surface high drops down from central Canada,” the weather service warned.
For example, Bismark, North Dakota was an icy -30 degrees Celsius at 0930 GMT, with wind that could cause frost bite on exposed skin in less than five minutes.
Wind chills were forecast to drop to 30 to 50 below in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, the Dakotas, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and even parts of Texas.
States of emergency were declared in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma and the National Guard was called out to help rescue stranded motorists.
Thousands of schools and government offices were closed and many businesses shuttered.
FlightAware reported that airlines grounded more than 6,700 flights on Tuesday — about 20 percent of US commercial flights — and had cancelled more than 4,500 before dawn Wednesday.
Most of the airlines at Chicago’s O’Hare airport — one of the busiest in the world — stopped operating after the blizzard set in Tuesday afternoon and said they “will have limited or no operations” Wednesday, the airport said.
Chicago was expected to be among the hardest hit with 14.5 inches (37 centimeters) of snow already piled up at Midway Airport as of 1030 GMT and up to two feet (50 centimeters) predicted.
Illinois State police said much of the state’s highway system was snow covered with large stretches “impassible.”
In Missouri, where at least one woman was reported killed after losing control of her car, the state closed Interstate 70, a major highway, from one end of the state to the other.
The National Weather Service also warned that shoveling sidewalks during such a significant snowfall can be deadly, noting that more than 40 people died of heart attacks in the aftermath of a 1999 blizzard in Chicago.
“Do not underestimate the task at hand,” it said.
The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was reported at a near standstill after a record 14 inches (35.5 centimeters) of snow was blown into deep drifts and collapsed the roof of a Hard Rock casino.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of cars stranded in the city, from private to emergency vehicles,” Paul Strizek of the city’s public works department told the Tulsa World, which announced that for the first time in its history, it would not publish a newspaper on Wednesday.
A coating of ice and freezing rain could not deter revellers, however, from awaiting word from the weather-predicting groundhog, Phil. In an annual Groundhog Day tradition, Phil was due to emerge from his hole Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and if he sees his shadow, determine whether or not there will be six more weeks of winter.
This video is from CBS, broadcast Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011.