A rare deep freeze in Texas raises demand for power and forces the US state's electric grid operator to impose rotating blackouts, leaving nearly three million customers without electricity.

Lia Ubidia, right, and her son, Andrew Velarde, carry groceries as they walk home through the snow on February 15, 2021, in Houston, TX, US.
Lia Ubidia, right, and her son, Andrew Velarde, carry groceries as they walk home through the snow on February 15, 2021, in Houston, TX, US. (AP)

A frigid blast of winter weather across the US has plunged Texas into an unusual icy emergency that knocked out power to nearly three million people and shut down grocery stores and dangerously snowy roads.

The worsening conditions on Monday halted the delivery of Covid-19 vaccine shipments and left some Texas providers scrambling to find takers for doses expiring within hours.

Temperatures nosedived into the single-digits as far south as San Antonio, and homes that had already been without electricity for hours had no certainty about when the lights and heat would come back on, as the state's overwhelming power grid throttled into rotating blackouts that are typically only seen in 100-degree Fahrenheit (38-degree Celsius) summers.

The storm was part of a massive system that brought snow, sleet, and freezing rain to the southern Plains and was spreading across the Ohio Valley and to the Northeast. 

The Southwest Power Pool, a group of utilities across 14 states, called for rolling outages because the supply of reserve energy had been exhausted. Some utilities said they were starting blackouts, while others urged customers to reduce power usage.

READ MORE: Massive vehicle pileup leaves several dead on icy Texas interstate

'Unprecedented weather event'

"We're living through a really historic event going on right now," said Jason Furtado, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, pointing to all of Texas under a winter storm warning and the extent of the freezing temperatures.

In Houston, where county leaders had warned that the freeze could create problems on the scale of massive hurricanes that slam the Gulf Coast, one electric provider said power may not be restored to some homes until Tuesday.

"This weather event, it's really unprecedented. We all living here know that," said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. He defended preparations made by grid operators and described the demand on the system as record-setting.

"This event was well beyond the design parameters for a typical, or even an extreme, Texas winter that you would normally plan for. And so that is really the result that we're seeing," Woodfin said.

The largest grocery store chain in Texas, H-E-B, closed locations around Austin and San Antonio, cities that are unaccustomed to snow and have little resources to clear roads. The slow thaw and more frigid lows ahead was also taking a toll on Texas' distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

Deliveries of vaccines halted  

State health officials said Texas, which was due to receive more than 400,000 additional vaccine doses this week, now does not expect deliveries to occur until at least Wednesday.

But with doses already in-hand expiring, Rice University on Monday abruptly began offering vaccines on its closed Houston campus. 

Harris Health System told the school it had about 1,000 vaccines that "were going to go to waste" and asked if the school could find takers, said Doug Miller, a university spokesman.

"The window was just a couple of hours. They have to take care of it quickly," Miller said.

Several cities in the US saw record lows as Arctic air remained over the central part of the country. 

In Minnesota, the Hibbing/Chisholm weather station registered minus 38 degrees Fahrenheit (-39 degrees Celsius), while Sioux Falls, South Dakota, dropped to minus 26 Fahrenheit (-26 degrees Celsius).

In Kansas, where wind chills dropped to as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-34 degrees Celsius) in some areas, Gov. Laura Kelly declared a state of disaster.

Most government offices and schools were closed for Presidents Day, and authorities pleaded with residents to stay home. 

Louisiana State Police reported that it had investigated nearly 75 weather-related crashes caused by a mixture of snow, sleet, and freezing rain in the past 24 hours.

"We already have some accidents on our roadways,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said during a morning news conference. “It is slick and it is dangerous."

Thousands of flights cancelled  

Air travel was also affected. By midmorning, 3,000 flights had been cancelled across the country, about 1,600 of them at Dallas/Fort Worth International and Bush Intercontinental airports in Texas. At DFW, the temperature was 4 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius), 3 degrees (-16 degrees) colder than Moscow.

The storm arrived over a three-day holiday weekend that has seen the most US air travel since the period around New Year’s. More than 1 million people went through airport security checkpoints on Thursday and Friday. However, that was still less than half the traffic of a year ago, before the pandemic hit with full force.

The southern Plains had been gearing up for the winter weather for the better part of the weekend. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for all of the state’s 254 counties. Abbott, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson each activated National Guard units to assist state agencies with tasks including rescuing stranded drivers.

President Joe Biden also declared an emergency in Texas in a statement Sunday night. The declaration is intended to add federal aid to state and local response efforts. 

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Source: AP