By Rich McKay
(RockedBuzz via Reuters) – An Arctic blast that hit much of the United States on Saturday has left more than 700,000 people without power, at least 16 dead in weather-related car crashes and thousands stranded due to flight cancellations.
Falling temperatures were predicted to bring the coldest Christmas Eve on record, and energy systems across the country were strained by growing heat demand and storm damage to transmission lines.
The latest outage numbers are a sharp drop from the 1.8 million U.S. homes and businesses left without power as of early Saturday morning, according to tracking site Poweroutage.us.
Many electric companies continued to ask customers to save energy by not running large appliances and turning off unnecessary lights.
Duke Energy late Saturday afternoon told customers it had ended rolling 15- to 30-minute blackouts in North and South Carolina that began earlier in the day until more electricity became available.
The disruptions have disrupted daily routines and vacation plans for millions of Americans during one of the busiest travel times of the year.
More than 2,700 U.S. flights were canceled on Saturday, with total delays exceeding 6,400, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. More than 5,000 flights were canceled on Friday, FlightAware said.
The American Automobile Association had estimated that 112.7 million people would venture 50 miles (80km) or more from home between December 23 and January 2.
Weather-related car crashes across the country have left at least 16 dead and hundreds stranded on icy and snow-covered roads, according to media reports.
In Erie County, New York, about 500 motorists were stranded in their vehicles Friday evening through Saturday morning, with the National Guard called to help with relief efforts, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told media . At least one person was found dead in a car, he said.
“There’s no place to go, everything’s closed, so stay home,” she told MSNBC.
Two motorists were killed, and numerous others injured, in a 50-vehicle pile-up that blocked the Ohio Turnpike in both directions during a blizzard near Toledo, forcing the evacuation of motorists stranded in buses to prevent them from freezing officials said.
Three deaths were reported in Kentucky, where Governor Andy Beshear warned residents on Saturday, “Stay home, stay safe, stay alive.”
“I know it’s really hard because it’s Christmas Eve. But we’re having dozens and dozens of crashes,” he said in an online briefing. “It’s just not safe.”
Blizzard conditions remained Saturday for Buffalo, New York, and surrounding county on the edge of Lake Erie in far western New York, where 4 to 6 feet of snow will fall by Sunday, the National Weather Service said. (NWS).
The city imposed a driving ban on Friday that remained in effect Saturday, and all three border crossing bridges in the Buffalo area were closed to traffic entering from Canada.
Temperatures were expected to peak Saturday at just 7 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-13 degrees Celsius) in Pittsburgh, surpassing the city’s previous coldest all-time Christmas Eve high of 13 F, set in 1983, he said the NWS.
Likewise, cities in Georgia and South Carolina — Athens and Charleston — reportedly recorded the coldest daytime temperatures on Christmas Eve, and Washington, D.C. was expected to experience its coldest December 24 since 1989.
The record-breaking holiday temperature gust was predicted as a deep freeze compounded by dangerous wind chills shrouded much of the nation’s eastern two-thirds.
“The cold snap will persist through Christmas,” said meteorologist Ashton Robinson Cook, at the NWS Weather Prediction Center.
Minneapolis was the coldest spot in America on Saturday at minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit. On Christmas morning, the coldest spot will be Fargo, North Dakota at minus-20, Cook said.
It will begin to moderate west to east across America, with the high plains and central US returning to normal by Tuesday, but it won’t warm up on the East Coast until Thursday or Friday, he said.
“It’s staying cold for now,” he said.
The bad weather has prompted authorities across the country to open warming centers in libraries and police stations as they work to expand temporary shelters for the homeless. The challenge has been compounded by an influx of migrants who have crossed the southern US border by the thousands in recent weeks.
The National Weather Service said its map of existing or imminent weather hazards “depicts one of the largest extensions of winter weather warnings and alerts ever.”
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Joel Schectman, Gabriella Borter, Tim Reid, Lisa Baertlein, Erwin Seba, Susan Heavey, Laila Kearney, Alyson McClaren, Aleksandra Michalska, and Scott DiSavino; Editing by William Mallard, Diane Craft, and Leslie Adler)