The big chill: Americans shiver as record-breaking cold traps motorists, cancels flights and claims lives

Everyone wants a white Christmas - until it actually happens, like this motorist digging his car out of a snow drift in New York. <i>Photo: AP</i>

Everyone wants a white Christmas - until it actually happens, like this motorist digging his car out of a snow drift in New York. Photo: AP

An arctic blast gripping much of the United States has left more than 700,000 without power, at least 16 dead from weather-related car crashes and thousands stranded due to flight cancellations.

Plummeting temperatures were expected to bring the coldest Christmas Eve on record, and energy systems across the country were strained by rising demand for heat and storm-related damage to transmission lines.

The latest outage numbers are a sharp drop from the 1.8 million US homes and businesses left without power as of early Saturday morning, according to tracking site

The conditions have upended daily routines and holiday plans for millions of Americans during one of the year’s busiest travel periods.

More than 2700 US flights were cancelled on Saturday, with more than 6400 delayed, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.

More than 5000 flights were cancelled on Friday, FlightAware said.

The American Automobile Association had estimated 112.7 million people would venture 80km or more from home from December 23 to January 2, but stormy weather has kept many people at home.

Weather-related car accidents across the country left at least 16 dead and hundreds stranded on ice and snowbound roads, according to media reports.

Trapped in their cars

In Erie County, in upstate New York, about 500 motorists were stranded in their vehicles on Friday night into Saturday morning, with the National Guard called in to help with rescues, Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz told media.

At least one person was found dead in a car, he said.

“There’s no place for anyone to go. Everything’s closed, so just stay home,” he told MSNBC.

Two motorists were killed, and numerous others injured, in a 50-vehicle pileup that shut down the Ohio Turnpike in both directions during a blizzard near Toledo, forcing an evacuation of stranded motorists by bus to keep them from freezing, officials said.

Three deaths were reported in Kentucky, where Governor Andy Beshear, on Saturday, warned residents, “Stay home, stay safe, stay alive.”

Blizzard conditions remained on Saturday for Buffalo, New York and its surrounding county in far western New York where 1.22 to 1.83 metres of snow will fall by Sunday, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

The city imposed a driving ban on Friday that remained in effect on Saturday, and all three Buffalo-area border-crossing bridges were closed to inbound traffic from Canada.

Record smashed

Temperatures were forecast to reach a top of minus 13 degrees Celsius in Pittsburgh on Saturday, surpassing the city’s previous all-time coldest Christmas Eve high of minus 10.56C, set in 1983, the NWS said.

Cities in Georgia and South Carolina – Athens and Charleston – were also expected to record their coldest daytime Christmas Eve high temperatures, and Washington, D.C. was forecast to experience its chilliest December 24 since 1989.

The flurry of yuletide temperature records was predicted as a deep freeze sharpened by perilous wind chills enveloped much of the eastern two-thirds of the nation.

The severe weather prompted authorities across the country to open warming centres in libraries and police stations while scrambling to expand temporary shelter for the homeless.

The challenge was compounded by an influx of migrants crossing the US southern border by the thousands in recent weeks.

The National Weather Service said its map of existing or impending meteorological hazards “depicts one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever”.

-with AAP

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