US winter storm expected to collide with peak holiday travel

People in the US are preparing for some of the coldest weather in recent memory as the country heads into the Christmas holiday season.

A traveler waits in an airport with holiday ornaments in the background
US airports expect travel around the Christmas holiday to reach pre-pandemic levels as the country braces for a sprawling winter storm [Nam Y Huh/AP]

The United States is bracing for extreme cold as a fierce winter storm threatens to complicate travel during the Christmas holiday.

Forecasters have predicted that, starting on Wednesday, a large storm will bring heavy snow, wind, flooding and ice to a broad swathe of the country, from the Plains region and the Great Lakes to the East Coast, followed by a surge of chilly Arctic air.

“The National Weather Service has a large area across the country which has wind chill warnings or wind chill watches,” said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland. “The system is so large and so encompassing in the US, there’s actually about 190m people currently under some type of winter weather advisory.”

The withering blast of cold weather hit the West Coast on Tuesday and is expected to move to the northern Rocky Mountains before bringing a deep freeze to the Great Plains and heavy snow to the Midwest, according to forecasters.

By Friday, the Arctic front is expected to reach as far south as Florida and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, which could experience record-breaking cold.

In the north, wind chills could bring temperatures as low as minus 57C (minus 70F) with the heaviest snowfall expected in states such as Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Authorities have urged precautions to protect vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and the unhoused, and they warn that power outages could potentially occur. The storm coincides with the lead-up to the Christmas holiday, when many people travel to spend time with family.

The US Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) said it expects Thursday and December 30 to be the busiest days of the year at airports throughout the country as passenger numbers near pre-pandemic levels.

The American Automobile Association predicted that nearly 113 million people would travel at least 80 km (50 miles) from their homes for the holidays, and six percent are expected to travel by air.

At least 192 flights were cancelled in the city of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday due to the inclement weather. And airlines such as Delta, Southwest, American and United have waived fees for changing flights at airports expected to be impacted.

The storm is the latest to bring challenging conditions to the US after a large storm brought tornadoes and blizzards to large areas of the country last week.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies