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Another pileup on icy roads as snow, bitter temperatures fueled by polar vortex bring havoc to much of nation

John Bacon

Jorge L. Ortiz
 
| USA TODAY

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ARLINGTON,  Va. — Icy roads contributed to a large pileup of smashed vehicles in an interstate highway for the second time in four days as swaths of the nation contended with major winter storms.

A fiery accident involving several semi-trailer trucks forced the shutdown of I-44 in both directions northeast of Oklahoma City on Sunday. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said there were also passenger cars at the crash scene. The number and severity of the injuries resulting from the wreck were being assessed.

On Thursday, at least six people died and dozens were injured in a 133-vehicle pileup on a Fort Worth, Texas, highway.

A wave of harsh winter weather and bitter cold temperatures left a swath of the Pacific Northwest and parts of the East blanketed in ice, snow and power outages Sunday, as more foul weather took aim at the nation’s southern tier.

The storm that blasted the west left more than 200,000 homes and businesses without power Sunday in Oregon alone. Parts of the East were covered with a sheet of ice, and more than 270,000 homes and businesses in Virginia were dark.

The near-record cold temperatures could be blamed in part on the polar vortex, a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding both of the Earth’s poles that has sagged down into the U.S. The result has been brutal conditions for hundreds of millions of Americans this week.

Temperatures in parts of Montana dropped into the minus-30s, and high temperatures were not expected to rise above zero or get much higher in eastern Wyoming or Colorado.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency late Saturday. Warming centers and other services were being provided.

“Crews are out in full force,” Brown said in a statement. “I’m committed to making state resources available to ensure crews have the resources they need on the ground.”

The National Weather Service said Oregon, Washington and Idaho should prepare for another surge of winter moisture Sunday night, potentially leading to more heavy snowfall through Monday. The “unsettled winter conditions” would likely continue throughout the week, the weather service said.

Winter storms and extreme cold affected much of the western U.S., particularly endangering homeless communities. Volunteers worked to ensure homeless residents in Casper, Wyoming, were indoors as the National Weather Service warned of wind chill reaching 35 degrees below zero.

Winter storm: Foul weather takes aim at the East this weekend

The South was not exempt. Winter storm warnings were in effect through Monday as a string of Southern cities braced for a blast snow, ice and bitterly cold conditions.

Large portions of the nation’s capital and its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland were covered in ice Sunday morning.

“Travel only when necessary,” the Arlington County, Virginia, Environmental Services Department said Sunday on Twitter. “Crews continue to check/salt known problem areas but temperatures rising above freezing are the best guarantee for safety.”

Snow began spreading across the Plains early Sunday in places such as Amarillo, Texas, Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kansas. Accuweather forecast snow and ice accumulations during the day on Monday for a list of cities not accustomed to such wintry weather, including Monroe and Shreveport, Louisiana, Little Rock, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee. All could see at least a few inches of fresh snow.

Houston, where temperatures hit the 70s on Tuesday, was bracing for below-freezing weather by Sunday night, prompting officials to advise residents to prepare for hazardous roads that could be similar to those experienced after a Category 5 hurricane.

“Typically, we just don’t have quite this much cold air in place that far south,” said Marc Chenard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a state of emergency across the entire state ahead of the storm and requested a federal emergency declaration from the White House.

“Every part of the state will face freezing conditions over the coming days, and I urge all Texans to remain vigilant against the extremely harsh weather that is coming,” Abbott said. “Stay off the roads, take conscious steps to conserve energy, and avoid dangerous practices like bringing generators indoors or heating homes with ovens or stovetops.”

More than 700 flights were canceled at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, while at Dallas Love Field most of the nearly 200 flights for Southwest Airlines, the airport’s main carrier, were canceled.

The Texas city of Lubbock was bracing for 3-5 inches of snow; areas outside the city could see up to 8 inches. Temperatures were forecast to drop into negative numbers overnight, and Monday could see wind chill temperatures of minus-21, the National Weather Service forecast.

“Travel could be very difficult,” the weather service warned. “Areas of blowing snow could significantly reduce visibility. Road conditions will become hazardous.”

In El Paso, city water authorities urged residents to “protect your pipes” ahead of the cold front to avoid costly repairs and damage.

“When water freezes, it expands its volume by nearly 10%, and the pressure can result in broken water lines,” the water company said in a statement.

Experts recommended insulating outdoor pipes and even allowing cold water to drip from faucets. Running a drip of water through the pipes helps prevent pipes from freezing because the temperature of the water is above freezing.

In Louisiana, the state Department of Transportation issued closings for bridges, overpasses and interstate ramps in the northeastern part of the state. The National Weather Service forecast snow, sleet and wintry mix Sunday and Monday throughout the region.

Temperatures were expected to reach record lows and not rise above freezing for multiple days.

“Winter Storm Warnings and Winter Weather Advisories were issued for significant ice accumulations and impacts,” the National Weather Service in New Orleans tweeted Sunday. “Upwards of 1/2 an inch of ice is possible in some areas but even a TRACE of freezing rain is dangerous.”

Contributing: Bonnie Bolden, Monroe (Louisiana) News-Star; The Associated Press


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