Texas deep freeze leaves millions without power

Snow blankets the BlackHawk neighborhood in Pflugerville, Texas. Photo:  Bronte Wittpenn/Austin...
Snow blankets the BlackHawk neighborhood in Pflugerville, Texas. Photo: Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman/USA Today Network via Reuters
A historic winter storm in the US has brought lower temperatures to Houston than in parts of Alaska, left millions of Texans without power and spun killer tornadoes into the Southeast.

The brutal cold that has engulfed vast swaths of the United States has shuttered Covid-19 inoculation centres and threatened to disrupt vaccine supplies to some areas.

Officials in Texas came under intense criticism as the state's energy grid repeatedly failed, forcing rolling blackouts across the state. The freezing weather stilled giant wind turbines that dot the West Texas landscape, making it impossible for energy companies to meet the escalating demand.

In Lubbock, Texas, university student Corbin Antu made the best of the situation. He snowboarded up and down snow-silent, white streets, clinging to a tow rope as friends in a pickup truck pulled him around the West Texas prairie town, where it's nearly impossible to find a hill to sled or ski down.

"This is my first time snowboarding out in Lubbock. Trust me, it's not disappointing," Antu said. "There is so much powder out on the ground it feels like it's Colorado almost."

NO POWER, VACCINE DELAYS

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a midday news conference that 1.3 million people in his city remain without power. The city is looking for businesses that still have power to open their doors as warming centres.

"It's critically, critically important to get the power restored as quickly as possible. It's priority number one!" Turner said.

Officials in south Texas warned citizens to not bring grills or propane heaters indoors - several people have been treated in hospitals for carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to heat icy homes by using those outdoor-only items.

Turner said that vaccination centres in Houston would remain closed on Wednesday and probably on Thursday too.

The Texas Department of State Health Services said shipments of vaccines around the state would be delayed, depending upon local weather conditions.

"No one wants to put vaccine at risk by attempting to deliver it in dangerous conditions," department spokesman Douglas Loveday said by email. "Local providers have postponed vaccine clinics because it is not safe for people to be out across much of Texas."

In neighbouring New Mexico, a state spokesman said by email that some of the state's Pfizer vaccine shipments were delayed and that the company and the state were in contact with the providers. Delays are expected to be brief and are not expected to dramatically affect vaccination efforts over time.

The deep freeze brought havoc to the Texas energy sector, grounding operations at the Houston Ship channel and curbing output in the nation's largest oil field: the Permian in West Texas. Several of the biggest oil refineries remained offline.

FREEZE WILL LINGER

Treacherous weather will maintain its grip on many parts of the United States from Tuesday through Friday, with up to 10 centimetres of snow and freezing rain expected from the southern Plains into the Northeast, forecasters said.

"We're calling it Storm System No. 2, with very similar placement to the previous storm," said meteorologist Lara Pagano of the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. She was referring to a system that blasted the nation through the long Presidents Day holiday weekend, dumping snow and ice from Ohio to the Rio Grande.

An Artic air mass that descended over much of the country pushed temperatures to historic lows on Tuesday, Pagano said. In Lincoln, Nebraska, a reading of minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 35 degrees Celsius) on Tuesday shattered a record set in 1978 of minus 18F (minus 27degC).

In typically toasty Dallas-Fort Worth, minus 1F (minus 17degC) broke a record set in 1903 of 12F (minus 11degC).

"That's what people are waking up to this morning: It's just dangerous," Pagano said.

Crippled by more than 4.4 million power outages in Texas alone, authorities shut down inoculation sites and scrambled to use 8,400 vaccines that require subzero refrigeration before they spoiled after a backup generator failed, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. Doses were rushed to area hospitals and Rice University to be injected into the arms of people already at those locations and who didn't have to travel on slick roads.

Icy roads were blamed for one of the four deaths tied to the bitter cold. The others were identified as a homeless person and two carbon monoxide poisoning victims, said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

In the Southeast, a low-pressure system that developed along the Arctic front created fuel for storms that unleashed at least four tornadoes, said meteorologist Jeremy Grams of the weather service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. One ripped through the Florida Panhandle and two through southwestern Georgia on Monday.

The fourth, most severe twister left three dead and homes flattened after it swept overnight through North Carolina's coastal Brunswick County in the state's southeastern corner between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the local sheriff's office said early on Tuesday.

After a brief lull on Tuesday that may allow authorities to assess damage, rough weather - including potential twisters - was expected to return on Wednesday into Thursday, Grams said.

"Those very same areas could be impacted - that will include tornadoes and damaging winds," he said. 

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