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Travelers across much of the eastern United States braced Thursday for one of the most treacherous Christmas weekends in decades, with forecasters warning of a "bomb cyclone" that will pack heavy snow and wind while sending temperatures plummeting.
The frigid air was moving through the central United States to the east, with windchill advisories affecting about 135 million people over the coming days, National Weather Service meteorologist Ashton Robinson Cook said. There were already widespread disruptions in flights and train travel.
"This is not like a snow day when you were a kid," President Joe Biden warned Thursday in the Oval Office after a briefing from federal officials. "This is serious stuff."
Forecasters are expecting a “bomb cyclone” — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly, leading to a violent system — in a storm that developed near the Great Lakes.
In South Dakota, Rosebud Sioux Tribe emergency manager Robert Oliver said tribal authorities have been working to clear roads to deliver propane and fire wood to homes, but face a relentless wind that has created drifts over 10 feet in some places. He said five people have died in recent storms, including a blizzard from last week. Oliver offered no details, saying the families are mourning.
"This weather and the amount of equipment we have — we don't have enough," Oliver said.
The emergency management team was able to perform 15 rescues of people stranded in their homes Wednesday, but it had to halt efforts early Thursday when its hydraulic fluid on the heavy equipment froze amid a wind chill of 41 below zero.
"It's just kind of scary for us here, we just kind of feel isolated and left out," said Shawn Bordeaux, a Democratic lawmaker who said he was running out of propane heat at his home on reservation.
In Texas, temperatures were expected to quickly plummet, but state leaders promised there wouldn't be a repeat of the February 2021 storm that overwhelmed the state's power grid and was blamed for hundreds of deaths.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was confident the state could handle the increased demand for energy as the temperatures dropped.
"I think trust will be earned over the next few days as people see that we have ultracold temperatures and the grid is going to be able to perform with ease," he told reporters Wednesday.
The cold weather extended to El Paso and across the border into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where migrants have been camping outside or filling shelters as they await a decision on whether the United States will lift restrictions that prevent many from seeking asylum.
Elsewhere in the nation, authorities worried about the potential for power failures and warned people to take precautions to protect older and homeless people and livestock and, if possible, to postpone travel.
Iowa utilities said they are confident they can meet demand during the storm.
Michigan State Police prepared to deploy additional troopers to help motorists. And along Interstate 90 in northern Indiana, crews were braced to clear as much as a foot of snow as meteorologists warned of blizzard conditions there starting Thursday evening. About 150 National Guard members also have been deployed to help snowbound Indiana travelers.
More than 1,846 flights within, into or out of the United States had been canceled as of midday Thursday, according to the tracking site FlightAware. Airlines have also canceled 931 Friday flights. Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports and Denver's airport were reporting the most cancelations. Freezing rain forced Delta to halt departures from its hub in Seattle.
Amtrak, meanwhile, canceled service on more than 20 routes, primarily in the Midwest. Service between Chicago and Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, and St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., was suspended through Christmas Day.
In Montana, temperatures fell as low as 50 below zero at Elk Park, a mountain pass on the Continental Divide. Several ski areas announced closures because of the extreme cold and winds. Others scaled back offerings. Schools also closed, and several thousand people lost power.
In famously snowy Buffalo, N.Y., forecasters predicted a "once-in-a-generation storm" because of heavy lake-effect snow, wind gusts as high as 65 mph, whiteouts and the potential for extensive power outages. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said a state of emergency would go into effect Friday, amid forecasts of 70 mph wind gusts.
Denver, also no stranger to winter storms, was the coldest it has been in 32 years Thursday, when the temperature dropped to minus 24 in the morning at the airport.
In Charleston, S.C., a coastal flood warning was in effect Thursday. The area, a popular tourist destination for its mild winters, braced for strong winds and freezing temperatures.