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‘Once-in-a-generation’: Thousands of flights canceled, highways closed amid storm

The United States has been hit by a powerful Arctic winter storm, forcing millions of people to stay indoors, causing thousands of flights to be canceled and resulting in the closure of major highways amidst the country’s busiest holiday season.

With temperatures reaching as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit and windchill taking the temperature to -60 Fahrenheit, the storm is said to be a “once-in-a-generation” phenomenon, with NASA data suggesting that it is only a little warmer than Mars.

The storm has severely affected travel for tens of thousands of those traveling for the annual Christmas holidays.

On Thursday, more than 2,350 US flights were canceled and another 2,120 flights for Friday were also scrapped, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.

FlightAware also showed more than 22,000 flights had been delayed on Thursday, with 5,500 canceled outright, many at Chicago O’Hare or Denver, both international hubs.

The American National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak said it was canceling dozens of its scheduled train trips in the Midwest through Christmas because of unfavorable weather conditions, including trains in Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri and trains between New York and Chicago.

Blinding whiteouts and hazardous road conditions were already spreading, even as 100 million people were expected to take to the roads, according to the American Automobile Association.

“Crews are using all available resources from across the state to clean up and restore travel,” the South Dakota Department of Transport said.

“Multiple highways are currently listed as ‘Road Impassable’… travel on the road segment is physically impossible due to widespread deep snow and drifts.”

“We’re trying to search on our phones. Figure out other routes. Maybe even taking a bus from here to Atlanta, which it’ll take us about 21 hours. So, that’s really inconvenient. But anything we can do just to get there (is) what we’re going to do,” Brandon Mattis, 24, who was seeking to reach Atlanta to join his family for celebrations, was quoted as saying.

According to AccuWeather forecasters, the storm could rapidly strengthen into what is known as a “bomb cyclone,” a term given to an explosive storm that intensifies rapidly, with its central air pressure dropping by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours, through a process known as “bombogenesis,” AFP reported.

Authorities have issued advisories or warnings, with meteorologists saying it was so cold in places that anyone venturing outside risked frostbite within minutes.

President Joe Biden received a briefing on the situation on Thursday morning, from the National Weather Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency. He encouraged Americans to heed the warnings of local officials and to stay safe in the face of the extreme cold.

“This is really a very serious weather alert here,” Biden said, adding that the White House has reached out to 26 governors in the affected regions.

“This is not like a snow day when you were a kid,” he told reporters. “This is serious stuff.”

The New York state governor, Kathy Hochul, declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the storm.

“Heavy rain and snow, strong winds, coastal and lake-shore flooding, flash freezing, extremely low wind chills and power outages all possible,” an announcement said.

The Arctic air mass is projected to bring strong wind gusts and a temperature of 15F (-9.4C) to El Paso, Texas, where newly arrived undocumented migrants are sleeping rough on city streets.

Americans also faced similar difficulties during last year’s holiday season, when the period was interrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19 among staff that forced airlines to cancel thousands of flights.

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