Swaths of North America are slowly emerging from a bone-chilling first week of February, after a fierce ice storm left 10 people dead and hundreds of thousands without power in some South Central states, and an Arctic blast set a new national wind chill record of -77°C in the Northeast.
Ice-slicked roads across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas were blamed for at least 10 traffic deaths during a brutal winter storm that began on Monday, January 30, reports the Associated Press. And as the end of the week brought above-zero temperatures to the south, another Arctic front was barrelling into the northeast, bringing life-threatening cold to New England and parts of Eastern and Atlantic Canada, with potentially the coldest winter weather in decades. Gusting winds were responsible for at least one death in Southwick, Massachusetts, after a tree branch fell on a vehicle. The 23-year-old woman who was driving was hospitalized with serious injuries, but the infant travelling with her did not survive, NBC News reported.
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The U.S. Weather Prediction Center had warned New Englanders that wind chills—the combined effect of wind and cold air on exposed skin—of around -45°C “could be the coldest felt in decades.” On Saturday, February 4, the lowest wind chill temperature ever recorded in the U.S. was observed in New Hampshire atop Mount Washington, the highest peak in the region, reports the New York Times.
Long-standing record lows were broken across New England, including in Boston, which reached -23°C to break its 1886 record -of 18°C. Bridgeport, Connecticut hit -20°C, breaking its previous record low of -15°C in 1996.
In Eastern and Atlantic Canada, fierce weather brought extreme cold alerts to Ontario, Quebec, and all the Maritime provinces, as well as parts of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Environment Canada meteorologist Darin Borgel said the persistent, frigid temperatures and wind chill values were “unprecedented” for the region.
“This has been an absolutely record-breaking cold snap for all of Eastern Canada,” Borgel told the Canadian Press. Cold snaps may very much be part of a Canadian winter, but this one stood out for its severity and brevity.
The frigid weather comes a mere six weeks after a “bomb cyclone” hit much of the continental U.S. over Christmas, killing at least 91 people, and leaving millions shivering in the dark.
Quite a few Americans were left without electricity this time round, as well, with local news reporting nearly 70,000 people without power in southern Arkansas at one point. Maritime Canadians also suffered outages, with some 25,000 Nova Scotia Power households without power at the height of the storm.
Texas was worst hit, however, with 430,000 residents still without power 24 hours after the deep freeze hit the state. Power failures were most widespread in Austin, where 150,000 residents remained without power nearly two days after the initial outage. For many, this meant no heat. Some 30% of nearly a million residents lost power during the storm.
One of them, Allison Rizzolo, told a local television station she wished there had been more clarity from the city on what to do or expect.
“I get that there’s a fine line between preparedness and panic, but I wish they’d been more aggressive in their communications,” Rizzolo said.
The city’s publicly-owned utility Austin Energy and municipal officials have been “facing growing calls for answers,” including why it took almost 24 hours for “a cohesive voice from local government” to brief the public on just how serious the situation was becoming, reports the Austin American Statesman.
Questions are also being asked about the failure to take swifter preventive action in the face of a storm the city and utility knew was worsening.
Mayor Kirk Watson, who took office in early January, said that while he was disappointed officials had not been more aggressive in their public communication, he also felt the utility had done its best.
“I think Austin Energy was ready for what they anticipated was going to happen and what weather reports stated,” Watson said. “But what they were not ready for was for a long accumulation of the ice buildup.”
In fact, weather forecasts called for a significant storm days in advance, including a January 30 alert that warned of up to six millimetres of ice accumulation over the coming days. On the second day of the storm, the National Weather Service was predicting up to 19 millimetres and had extended its storm warning to include the next three days.
Conceding that “some could argue” the city could have acted faster to prevent a dire situation, Watson suggested reform was in order. “When this is over we will have to sit down and debrief and ask, what should the decision tree be that gets that done more quickly,” he said.
The city could also consult its own After Action Report, produced after the devastating storm of February 2021 that left 700 hundred dead, water supplies compromised, and the entire Texas grid hanging by a thread. The report said clear communication is crucial to ease fear and avoid confusion and anger.
Austin will also be looking at strategies to make its power infrastructure more resilient, like burying power lines, Watson said, but he added that such efforts would take time and could be costly.
Failing to prioritize resilience could also prove costly. While the Texas grid weathered last week’s cold snap fairly well (much of Austin’s misery owned to powerlines downed by fallen trees and ice accumulation), the deep freeze six weeks ago left major sections of the U.S.’s mostly fossil-fuelled grid, especially Texas, strained to the point of breaking.
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