AUSTIN, Texas -- A frigid blast of winter weather across the U.S. plunged Texas into an unusually icy emergency Monday that knocked out power for more than 2 million people, shut down grocery stores and air travel and sent cars skidding on dangerously snowy and slick roads.
The worsening conditions also halted the delivery of covid-19 vaccine shipments. Power outages across Houston included a facility storing 8,000 doses of Moderna vaccine, and health officials scrambled to find takers at the same time authorities were pleading for people to stay home.
Temperatures nosedived into the single digits as far south as San Antonio, and homes that had already been without electricity for hours had no certainty about when the lights and heat would come back on, as the state's overwhelmed power grid throttled into rolling blackouts typically seen only in 100-degree summers.
The storm was part of a large weather system that brought snow, sleet and freezing rain to the southern Plains and was spreading across the Ohio Valley and to the Northeast. The Southwest Power Pool, a group of utilities across 14 states, called for rolling outages because the supply of reserve energy had been exhausted. Some utilities said they were starting blackouts, while others urged customers to reduce power usage.
"We're living through a really historic event going on right now," said Jason Furtado, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, pointing to all of Texas under a winter storm warning and the extent of the freezing temperatures.
In his first statement about statewide electricity outages that began early Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday afternoon that officials are working to get power back online and residential consumers are being prioritized.
"Many power generation companies facilities froze overnight and shut down their ability to generate power. They are working to get power back on line," Abbott said in a tweet. "This includes the natural gas & coal generators."
The Republican governor assured people the Texas power grid "has not been compromised."
In Houston, where county leaders had warned that the freeze could create problems on the scale of hurricanes that slam the Gulf Coast, one electric provider said power may not be restored to some homes until today. More than 500 people were hunkering down at one shelter, but Mayor Sylvester Turner said other warming centers had to be shut down because those locations also lost power.
State officials said soaring demand and cold weather knocking some power stations offline had pushed Texas' system beyond the limits.
"This weather event, it's really unprecedented. We all living here know that," said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. He defended preparations made by grid operators and described the demand on the system as record-setting.
"This event was well beyond the design parameters for a typical, or even an extreme, Texas winter that you would normally plan for. And so that is really the result that we're seeing," Woodfin said.
The outages began at 1:25 a.m. Monday, the electricity agency said, and they are expected to last into today.
The largest grocery store chain in Texas, H-E-B, closed locations around Austin and San Antonio, cities that are unaccustomed to snow and have few resources to clear roads. The slow thaw and more frigid low temperatures ahead was also taking a toll on Texas' distribution of covid-19 vaccines.
State health officials said Texas, which was due to receive more than 400,000 doses this week, now does not expect deliveries before Wednesday.
The weather also put existing vaccine supply in jeopardy. Rice University on Monday abruptly began offering shots on its closed Houston campus after Harris Health System told the school it had about 1,000 that "were going to go to waste," said Doug Miller, a university spokesman. "The window was just a couple hours. They have to take care of it quickly," Miller said.
A Harris County Public Health facility storing the vaccines lost power between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. and its backup generator also failed, said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
RECORDS ACROSS U.S.
The historic blast of cold has set scores of records from the Gulf Coast to the Canadian border. The exceptional cold is affecting about 30 states, with temperatures up to 50 degrees below normal.
Houston's Intercontinental Airport dipped to 17 degrees early Monday, the coldest reading observed there since Dec. 23, 1989, with forecasts predicting lower temperatures this morning.
Some counties along the Texas coastline near Houston had never been under a winter storm warning until this week. As a first wave of snow and ice pulled away Monday, record cold was being reinforced by northerly winds bringing dangerous wind chills.
In Kansas, where wind chills dropped to as low as minus-30 degrees in some areas, Gov. Laura Kelly declared a state of disaster. Kansas City reported a wind chill of minus-32 degrees, the most frigid measured there since 1989.
After starting the day at minus-5 degrees, Oklahoma City peaked at only about 4 degrees for an afternoon high -- a record for the date. It's also just 2 degrees away from Oklahoma City's all-time coldest high.
Punishing cold, ice and snow are also hitting Louisiana, including some of the areas devastated by hurricanes just months ago.
Most government offices and schools were closed for Presidents Day, and authorities pleaded with residents to stay home. Louisiana State Police reported that it had investigated nearly 75 weather-related crashes caused by a mixture of snow, sleet and freezing rain in the past 24 hours.
"We already have some accidents on our roadways," Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said during a Monday morning news conference. "It is slick and it is dangerous."
Slick conditions also plagued Mississippi, where the state Department of Transportation was reporting ice on roads and bridges throughout much of the state. The agency posted photos and video of snowy interstates on Facebook and urged people to stay home so crews could work to clear the roads.
In north Alabama, authorities responded early Monday to a pileup involving at least 20 cars along a highway near Lacey's Spring where dense fog and ice covered the roadway, according to the Morgan County Sheriff's Office. No severe injuries were reported, the agency said.
Air travel was also affected. By midmorning Monday, 3,000 flights had been canceled across the country, about 1,600 of them at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Houston's Bush Intercontinental.
In Houston, officials said airport runways would remain closed until at least 1 p.m. today, a day longer than previously expected.
The storm arrived over a three-day holiday weekend that has seen the most U.S. air travel since the period around New Year's. More than 1 million people went through airport security checkpoints Thursday and Friday.
The southern Plains had been gearing up for the winter weather for the better part of the weekend. Abbott issued a disaster declaration for all of Texas. Abbott, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson each activated National Guard units to assist state agencies with tasks including rescuing stranded drivers.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency in Texas in a statement Sunday night. The declaration is intended to add federal aid to state and local response efforts.
FROM THE NORTH POLE
The cold weather is coming directly from the North Pole, via Siberia, following a disruption in the circulation of the polar vortex that occurred in January. It's helping to spark two major storm systems, the first of which dumped snow and ice Sunday night and Monday morning, with the second on the way for Wednesday.
Oklahoma City measured about 5 to 8 inches of snow across the metro area, a bit more than what had fallen to the west in Amarillo, Texas.
Abilene, Texas, reported a general 8 to 11 inches, with drifts to 18 inches tall. San Angelo had 10 inches. Preliminary reports also suggest 4 to 6 inches fell in Dallas-Fort Worth. If the official total there comes in above 5 inches, it will be the city's third-greatest snowstorm on record dating back to 1974.
Webcam images showed snow covering the beaches in Galveston. "We did get someone on the beach making a snow angel," said Kent Prochazka, lead meteorologist at the Houston Weather Service office. He said the impacts of a cold snap like this one, including the threat of burst pipes in many homes and businesses, "are so rare here that there's a lot of preparation that needs to go on."
Donald Jones, a meteorologist at the weather service in Lake Charles, La., said that area is especially vulnerable to extreme cold because of the dual hurricanes last year. "A lot of residents are living in trailers or temporary housing," he said. "There were a lot of questions leading up to this event about pipes freezing because a lot of people now have these exposed pipes. There's a larger homeless population than there was before the storms."
The central United States is currently the most unusually cold region on the planet, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees below average in some areas. However, the planet as a whole is still unusually mild, and 2020 was on par with the previous record for the warmest year on record.
Information for this article was contributed by Paul J. Weber, Jake Bleiberg, David Koenig, Juan A. Lozano, Rebecca Reynolds Yonker, Kate Brumback, Margaret Stafford, Amy Forliti and staff members of The Associated Press; by Nataly Keomoungkhoun, Krista M. Torralva, Allie Morris and Charlie Scudder of The Dallas Morning News; and by Andrew Freedman, Matthew Cappucci, Kim Bellware and Jason Samenow of The Washington Post.