U.S. Ice Storm Grounds Flights as Power Lines Put at Risk

A frigid winter storm iced power lines and runways across the U.S. South, grounding flights and knocking out electricity to thousands of customers.

At least 2,824 flights around the U.S. were canceled yesterday and today, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based airline tracking company. Utilities were staging crews to work on anticipated power losses from Texas to Arkansas, some of which may last a week. Sub-freezing temperatures may also crimp natural gas production in the central U.S.

“What is impressive to me is how large an area of North America is getting the arctic chill right now,” said Jack Boston, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “Places that get the power knocked out are in trouble unless they have a wood fireplace or stove.”

Winter storm warnings and advisories stretch to western Massachusetts from Texas’s border with Mexico, according to the weather service. The cold front roughly tracks that line, said Rob Carolan, owner of Hometown Forecast Services Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire. Temperatures are falling to the west, while it’s relatively warm to the east.

Flights Grounded

American Airlines Inc. and its regional partner American Eagle grounded 900 flights today, more than one-third of the carrier’s daily total, because of the ice and sleet storm over North Texas.

“It is nasty,” said Andrea Huguely, an American spokeswoman. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is American’s largest hub. The airline will update the status of its operations in Dallas later today.

American’s cancellations make up most of the 1,668 across the U.S. reported today by FlightAware, as of 12:15 p.m. New York time. Freezing rain and sleet that began in the Dallas area late yesterday continued today, with temperatures forecast to remain below freezing through most of the weekend. Traffic was snarled, with portions of highways impassable, and area schools were closed.

As much as an inch (2.5 centimeters) of ice was forecast to coat trees, power lines and roads from Texas to Tennessee, according to the National Weather Service. The ice will persist for 12 to 18 hours, Boston said.

Power Restoration

About 270,000 homes and businesses, including more than 210,000 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, were without power as of 1:30 p.m. New York time today, according to utility websites. Utilities also reported thousands of blacked-out customers in western Oklahoma and Arkansas as power failures spread into Tennessee. The MetroPCS Dallas Marathon, scheduled for Dec. 8, was canceled, according to the marathon website.

All power will be restored in Dallas County, Texas, the hardest hit, by 3 p.m. Dec. 9, Oncor Electric Delivery, owner of the area’s power lines, said on its website.

The weather service canceled an ice-storm warning for central Arkansas, where Entergy Corp. had planned to have at least 8,000 people working to restore power, including crews from companies across the country, according to an Entergy statement. Entergy and American Electric Power’s SWEPCO unit reported about 20,000 customers blacked out in the state.

Arctic temperatures can also crimp gas production by creating freeze-offs, in which ice forms in and near wells, disrupting output.

Heating Demand

“It is too early to tell how much NGL extraction could be affected, but well-below normal temperatures are expected in the major western and midcontinent processing regions for the next six to 14 days,” Peter Fasullo, an energy consultant at EnVantage Inc. in Houston, said yesterday in a weekly note to clients.

Cold weather also drives up demand, said Teri Viswanath, director of commodities strategy at BNP Paribas SA in New York.

“A significant number of homes, especially in the Southeast, actually heat with electric power,” Viswanath said in an e-mail interview.

Natural gas reached a six-month high of $4.199 per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange today. The price was $4.14 at 1:16 p.m. New York time.

Power generation accounts for 32 percent of U.S. natural gas use, according to the Energy Information Administration, the Energy Department’s statistical arm. About 49 percent of all homes use the fuel for heating.

California Cold

A weather block forming over the Pacific Ocean funneled the cold air from Siberia and the North Pole into North America, Boston said, causing temperatures to fall to minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-23 Celsius) to minus-20 across western Canada and remain below zero in Montana.

“The coldest air in the Northern Hemisphere is from the northern Rocky Mountains into Canada,” Boston said.

The cold reached into California’s Central Valley, where a hard-freeze warning has been in effect for most of this week. The warning means temperatures can get low enough to hurt livestock and damage crops.

Sacramento may even get some light snow later today for the first time since 2002, Boston said.

Los Angeles fell to 42 degrees today and San Francisco was 39, Carolan said. Douglas, Arizona, on the Mexican border, was 29, he said.

“The temperatures you see are more what you would see in January than December, it is deep winter cold at the start of the winter season,” Carolan said. “All of the west is cold this morning. It is cold on both sides of the Rockies.”

East Coast

Another storm will move through the Mid-Atlantic states and U.S. Northeast over the weekend, Carolan said. New York and Boston may start out with a mix of snow and sleet before changing to over to rain early on Dec. 9.

After that storm passes, the national pattern will settle down and temperatures will probably moderate, Carolan said.

“It takes several weeks to build the cold air up in Canada and then you drain it all out,” Carolan said. “I think the pattern is going to take a pause, or a breather, in mid-December.”

From 1993 to 2012, winter storms caused $27.8 billion in insured damages in the U.S., the worst type of catastrophe after tornadoes and hurricanes, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

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