MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A late fall cold snap that has gripped much of the country is being blamed for a handful of deaths and has forced people to deal with frigid temperatures, power outages by the thousands and treacherous roads.
Weather forecasters say the powerful weather system has Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic in its icy sights next.
Temperatures in Montana and South Dakota were more than 20 degrees below zero during the day Saturday while much of the Midwest was in the teens and single digits. Wind chill readings could drop as low as 50 below zero in northwestern Minnesota, weather officials said.
Icy conditions were expected to last through the weekend from Texas to Ohio to Tennessee, and Virginia officials warned residents of a major ice storm likely to take shape Sunday, resulting in power outages and hazards on the roads.
In California, four people died of hypothermia in the San Francisco Bay area and about a half-dozen traffic-related deaths were blamed on the weather in several states.
Icy, treacherous sections of Interstate 35 north of Dallas were closed for hours at a time over the last day as tractor-trailers had trouble climbing hills, wrecks occurred and vehicles stalled, authorities said.
Tina Pacheco, her husband and two friends were traveling through Texas on their way to Mexico when the ice-laden interstate became so treacherous that traffic came to a standstill. They were forced to spend Friday night in their pickup truck. They parked on a service road and kept the truck running for heat.
“We couldn’t go anywhere,” she said, adding, “It’s a good thing we had gas.”
Jody Gonzalez, chief of Denton County Emergency Services, said about 200 people were in shelters in the Sanger area after getting stuck on the highway. People in that area of I-35 were driving through ruts in 4-inch-thick ice, he said.
Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Michelle Releford said road graders and more sand and salt trucks were being sent to try to ease the ice problems.
“We’re sending in everything we’ve got,” said Releford.
About 75,000 customers in the Dallas area were without power Saturday, down from a peak of more than 270,000. Oklahoma utilities reported more than 7,500 power outages across the state and western Arkansas.
Some 400 departing flights from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport were canceled, about half of the usual schedule, the airport said. About 3,330 passengers had stayed overnight in the terminals.
Among those stranded in Dallas was Narasimhan Rangarajan of Chennai, India, who was on his way to see his brother in Salt Lake City, Utah.
He laughed that his vacation had been “not so good so far.” He said he hoped his flight Saturday night to Salt Lake City would take off.
Freezing rain and sleet are likely again Saturday night in Memphis, Nashville and other areas of Tennessee before the storm starts surging northeast.
“It looks like we’re going to be stuck with this for one, two, maybe three days,” said Memphis attorney Sam Chafetz, who was going home early to enjoy some bourbon-soaked sweet potatoes left over from Thanksgiving.
“I’m not afraid of the ice and snow, I’m afraid of the other drivers who don’t know how to drive in it,” Chafetz said.
In Virginia, state Emergency Management spokeswoman Laura Southard said the storm had the potential to be a “historic ice event.”
“This forecast is very concerning to us,” Southard said Saturday. “I’ve worked multiple disasters, but I’ve never worked an ice storm with a forecast like this. It’s just really important for everybody to take extra precautions.”
The weather forced the cancellation of countless events, including Sunday’s Dallas Marathon, which was expected to draw 25,000 runners, some of whom had trained for months, and the St. Jude Marathon in Memphis, expected to include 20,000.
Meanwhile, a football game between Central Florida and Southern Methodist in ice-covered Dallas went on in front of a sparse crowd.
Around 7 inches of snow fell in northeast Arkansas and the Missouri boot heel, according to the National Weather Service in Memphis, and 8 to 9 inches fell in parts of southern Indiana. The storm dumped a foot of snow and more in some areas of Illinois, with police scrambling to respond to dozens of accidents and forced scores of schools to remain closed.
Ice accumulated on trees and power lines in Memphis and the rest of West Tennessee after layers of sleet fell throughout the region Friday but most roads were passable Saturday.
Looking ahead, the National Weather Service says a wind chill advisory is in effect for parts of northeast Arkansas and the Missouri boot heel. Forecasters say wind chill readings between zero and minus-5 degrees may occur. Usually in the area, snowstorms are followed by fairly quick rebounds into warm weather, but not this time.
Ice had built up on the windshields and roofs of parked cars throughout Memphis into Saturday. Law enforcement reported an increase in traffic crashes, and scattered power outages affected more than 3,000 people, emergency and utility officials said.
Residents were told to prepare for a few days without power, prompting them to rush to stores to stock up on groceries, buy electricity generators and gas up their cars. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell reminded residents to check on family and friends who are elderly, disabled or live alone.
Tips for driving on ice
Drivers beware. With bitter cold temperatures settling in over a big chunk of the country, highway officials are warning people to stay off slick roads and, if they must go out, take extra care when getting behind the wheel.
Sgt. Mike Watson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said drivers should be prepared before leaving their homes.
Some of his tips:
•Make sure cellphones are charged and bring a charger.
Fill up the gas tank. Stash booster cables, blankets, flashlights and an ice scrapper in the car.
Put a bag of sand or some cat litter in the trunk, in case it’s needed for traction if stuck in ice.
If you do get stuck on the road, call for help, he said. And while waiting inside a running vehicle, make sure tailpipes are clear from obstructions.
One other important suggestion from Watson: Stranded motorists should stay inside their vehicles while they wait for help. It could make it easier for emergency crews to find stranded drivers and it provides shelter, he said.
“If you start walking, especially in a storm, you could get lost fairly quickly, depending on the visibility. Don’t overexert yourself whether to push or dig your vehicle out of the snow. You can always tie a cloth or some brightly colored item to your vehicle,” he said.
Randy Ort, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Highway Transportation, has one other tip for drivers if they get stuck on a highway: Try to move over to the shoulder.
“If they do find themselves where the vehicle cannot go — we do ask that they do the best job to get it out of the travel lane,” he said.