Historic deep freeze leaves several dead, delays vaccine efforts in US

Lubbock, Texas: A historic winter storm has killed at least 21 people, left millions of Texans without power and spun killer tornadoes into the US south-east.

The brutal cold has engulfed vast swaths of the United States, shuttering COVID-19 inoculation centres and hindering vaccine distribution. It is not expected to relent until the weekend.

At least 21 people have died in Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky and Missouri, according to police and local media.

A person rides a bicycle through snow in McKinney, Texas.Credit:Bloomberg

Three people found dead after a tornado hit a seaside town in North Carolina and four family members who perished in a Houston-area house fire while using a fireplace to stay warm.

The storm that overwhelmed power grids and immobilised the Southern Plains carried heavy snow and freezing rain into New England and the Deep South and left behind painfully low temperatures. Wind-chill warnings extended from Canada into Mexico.

Other causes of death included car crashes and carbon monoxide poisoning.

People free their cars from the snow in Waco, Texas. Credit:AP

Officials in Texas drew criticism as the state energy grid repeatedly failed, forcing rolling blackouts. Freezing weather stilled giant wind turbines that dot the West Texas landscape, making it impossible for energy companies to meet escalating demand.

President Joe Biden assured the governors of hard-hit sates that the federal government stands ready to offer any emergency resources needed, the White House said in a statement.

Biden, who was heading to Milwaukee to participate in a CNN town hall, declared the weather at his destination “cold as the devil up there”.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said 1.3 million people in his city remained without power. The city was looking for businesses that still had power to open their doors as warming centres.

“It’s critically, critically important to get the power restored as quickly as possible. It’s priority number one!” Turner said.

Officials in south Texas warned citizens to not bring grills or propane heaters indoors. Hospitals have treated people for carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to heat icy homes using those items.

Turner said vaccination centres in Houston would remain closed for the next two days. The Texas Department of State Health Services said vaccine shipments around the state would be delayed.

“No one wants to put vaccine at risk by attempting to deliver it in dangerous conditions,” department spokesman Douglas Loveday said by email, adding “it is not safe for people to be out across much of Texas.”

Hawk Palmour tends a fire he used for heat and cooking at a homeless camp in Austin, Texas.Credit:AP

In neighbouring New Mexico, a state spokesman said by email there were delays in some Pfizer vaccine shipments, which were expected to be brief.

The deep freeze grounded operations at the Houston Ship channel and curbed output in the nation’s largest oil field: the Permian in West Texas. Several oil refineries remained offline.

Freeze will linger

Storms dumped snow and ice from Ohio to the Rio Grande through the long Presidents’ Day holiday weekend, and treacherous weather was expected to grip much of the US through till the weekend. Forecasters predicted up to 4 inches of snow and freezing rain from the southern Plains into the Northeast.

“We’re calling it Storm System No. 2, with very similar placement to the previous storm,” said meteorologist Lara Pagano of the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Centre in College Park, Maryland.

An Arctic air mass descended over much of the country, pushing temperatures to historic lows on Tuesday, Pagano said. In Lincoln, Nebraska, a reading of minus 35 degrees Celsius on Tuesday, US time, shattered a record set in 1978 of minus 27.

In typically toasty Dallas-Fort Worth, minus 17 broke a record set in 1903 of minus 11.

“It’s just dangerous,” Pagano said.

With more than 4.4 million power outages in Texas alone, authorities shut down inoculation sites and scrambled to use 8400 vaccines that require subzero refrigeration before they spoiled after a back-up generator failed, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. Doses were rushed to area hospitals and Rice University to be injected into the arms of people already at those locations and who did not have to travel on slick roads.

In the south-east, a low-pressure system that developed along the Arctic front created fuel for storms that unleashed at least four tornadoes, said meteorologist Jeremy Grams of the weather service’s Storm Prediction Centre in Norman, Oklahoma. One ripped through the Florida Panhandle and two through south-western Georgia on Monday.

“Those very same areas could be impacted – that will include tornadoes and damaging winds,” he said.

University student Corbin Antu found a way to snowboard in the flat West Texas plains town of Lubbock. He clung to a tow rope as friends in a ute pulled him up and down silent white streets.

“This is my first time snowboarding out in Lubbock. Trust me, it’s not disappointing,” Antu said. “There is so much powder out on the ground it feels like it’s Colorado almost.”

Reuters, AP

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