At least 49 dead amid winter weather, power outages as storm moves east

Weather

CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — Millions of Americans endured another frigid day without electricity or heat in the aftermath of a deadly winter storm as utility crews raced to restore power before another blast of snow and ice sowed more chaos in places least equipped to deal with it.

More than 500,000 customers around the U.S. were still without electricity early Friday morning, and millions in Texas were without safe water service. The extreme weather has been blamed for at least 49 deaths, wreaked havoc on some states’ power grids and utilities, jeopardized drinking water systems, and delayed vaccine shipments across the country.

The latest storm front, moving in Thursday morning into the afternoon, was certain to complicate recovery efforts, especially in states that are unaccustomed to such weather — parts of Texas, Arkansas and the Lower Mississippi Valley.

The system moved into the Northeast on Thursday. More than 100 million people live in areas covered by some type of winter weather warning, watch or advisory, the weather service said.

“There’s really no letup to some of the misery people are feeling across that area,” said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service, referring to Texas.

President Joe Biden has declared emergencies for states impacted by the severe weather, including Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

“I’ve declared states of emergency, authorized FEMA to provide generators and supplies, and am ready to fulfill additional requests,” Biden said in a statement on Twitter Thursday. “Please heed the instructions of local officials and stay safe.”

Biden spoke by phone Thursday evening with Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

Biden “conveyed his support to the people of Texas in this trying time. He reiterated that the federal government will continue to work hand-in-hand with state and local authorities in Texas to bring relief and address the critical needs of the families affected,” a readout of the call made available by the White House said. Biden also expressed his administration is at the ready if Texas or any other impacted region needs additional federal disaster support as the storms move across the country.

By Thursday evening, 325,000 homes and businesses remained without power, down from about 3 million a day earlier, though utility officials said limited rolling blackouts were still possible.

The storms also left more than 320,000 homes and businesses without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. About 70,000 power outages persisted after an ice storm in eastern Kentucky, while nearly 67,000 were without electricity in West Virginia.

Winter weather death toll rises

This week’s extreme weather has been blamed for the deaths of at least four dozen people, some of whom perished while struggling to keep warm inside their homes.

In the Houston area, one Texas family succumbed to carbon monoxide from car exhaust in their garage.

Also in Texas, a 75-year-old woman and her three grandchildren were killed in a house fire while officials believe they were using their fireplace to keep warm.

A half dozen people have died from exposure, including several whose bodies were found along Texas roadways covered in ice and snow, a Kansas woman who wandered outside in her nightgown and a Kentucky woman in an unheated mobile home after two days without power and heat.

In and around the western Texas city of Abilene, authorities said six people died of the cold — including a 60-year-old man found dead in his bed in his frigid home and a man who died at a health care facility when a lack of water pressure made medical treatment impossible.

Three people died in a tornado in North Carolina. Three more fell through ice, into a pond in Tennessee, a lake in Oklahoma and a swimming pool in Louisiana.

A 69-year-old Arkansas man was found dead Wednesday after falling into a frozen pond while trying to rescue a calf. 

And a 9-year-old boy was killed while having fun with his father in Tennessee. His dad was pulling him on a tube behind an ATV on an icy street when the boy slammed into a mailbox.

At least four other winter storm-related deaths have been reported in Tennessee this week, NewsNation WKRN reports.

And a man fell through the ice on the Detroit River on Wednesday night and likely drowned, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said.

Power outages and water crisis

The worst U.S. power outages by far have been in Texas, where the grid is slowly stabilizing but the state is still facing major problems with drinking water systems. Outages dropped to below a half million as of 10:30 a.m. CT Thursday. This was the first time in four days power outages in Texas dropped below one million, and had been as high 4.1 million.

Texas’ power grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said Thursday that all controlled outages have ended in the state, and utility companies can bring all power back online as they see fit. But some people will remain without power due to the slow process of restoring outages in the field. Others will be without power due to infrastructure problems caused by the ice and snow storms.

Thursday afternoon, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said 2 million people have had power restored, leaving 325,000 people in the state still without power as of Thursday afternoon. He said most of those remaining issues are because of issues caused by the storm, and not because of any generation issues stemming from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ grid management.

“We hope and anticipate no location will be without power tonight,” Abbott said, adding “every available repair truck has been dispatched” to help fix power issues caused by the ice storm.

Texas officials have ordered at least 7 million people — one-quarter of the state’s population — to boil tap water before drinking it following days of record low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and froze pipes. 13 million Texans are seeing interruptions in their water services.

Many water treatment plants lost power, creating an environment capable of breeding bacteria. Another explanation given for the water issues is many people dripping their pipes to prevent pipe damage has led to extreme usage.

Power was cut to a New Orleans facility that pumps drinking water from the Mississippi River. A spokeswoman for the Sewerage and Water Board said on-site generators were used until electricity was restored.

In the southwest Louisiana city of Lake Charles, Mayor Nic Hunter said Wednesday that water reserves remained low and hospitals might have to transfer patients to other areas.

Weather-related outages have been particularly stubborn in Oregon, where some customers have been without power for almost a week.

More than 80,000 customers remained without power Thursday in Oregon as of 6:30 p.m. CST Thursday, nearly a week after a massive snow and ice storm toppled many trees and took out hundreds of miles of power lines.

The damage to the power system was the worst in 40 years, said Maria Pope, CEO of Portland General Electric. At the peak of the storm, more than 350,000 customers in the Portland area were in the dark.

“These are the most dangerous conditions we’ve ever seen in the history of PGE,” said Dale Goodman, director of utility operations, who declined to predict when all customers would have power restored.

Utilities from Minnesota to Texas implemented rolling blackouts to ease the burden on strained power grids. The Southwest Power Pool, a group of utilities covering 14 states, said the blackouts were “a last resort to preserve the reliability of the electric system as a whole.”

After additional snow and iced on the Deep South plunged more than 300,000 homes and businesses into darkness early Thursday, many roads were left impassable.

Parts of Interstate 20 were at a standstill in Louisiana, state police said, and multiple roads were icebound in Mississippi, where over 100,000 utility customers were without power, including thousands near the capital in Jackson. In northwest Alabama, crews driving heavy machinery most often used for warm-weather road work cleared snow off roads and parking lots.

Days of freezing temperatures caused heating and cooking problems in some Mississippi prisons this week, Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain said.

Twelve people have been rescued from boats after a dock weighed down by snow and ice collapsed on the Cumberland River in Tennessee, the Nashville Fire Department said.

Travel remains ill-advised in much of the United States, with roadways treacherous and thousands of flights canceled. Many school systems delayed or canceled face-to-face classes. But staying home carried risks too in places without power.

The dire storms come as President Joe Biden aims to spend up to $2 trillion on infrastructure and clean energy investment over four years. Biden has pledged to update the U.S. power grid to be carbon-pollution free by 2035 as well as weatherize buildings, repair roads and build electric vehicle charging stations.

“Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will play an integral role” in creating jobs and meeting Biden’s goal of “a net-zero emissions future,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

Better forecasting — both short-term and long-term — would help avoid catastrophic failures such as the current outages in Texas and other states, as would large-scale storage systems that can supply electricity when demand spikes and a greater diversity of power sources, experts said.

The Associated Press and NewsNation affiliates around the country contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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