Storms devastate a nation on the brink after a year of lockdown — and it’s nowhere near over

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There is no fine time for a devastating barrage of winter storms, but it’s hard to imagine the weather icing over much of the United States coming at a less opportune moment.

The country is not only in a pandemic that shut down all manner of activity and left tens of millions of Americans unemployed, but it’s also in the early stages of a Covid-19 vaccination campaign that has provided the first hope in a year that the nation is nearing normalcy.

Days of snow, ice and freezing rain are further kinking up a vaccine rollout that has been far from flawless, depriving doses from seniors and essential workers on deadline for their second doses. From Texas to New York, officials are weighing the weather system’s impact, and even states such as Colorado and Florida that escaped the worst of winter’s wrath are experiencing shipment delays as a result of the storms.

Not to mention the danger of people huddling in houses and warming centers when they’re supposed to be socially distancing. Tricia Lancaster of Dallas had no choice but to welcome family members into her home after they lost power, she told CNN.

“We’re trying to stay safe and not get together because of Covid. Now, everyone’s together. It’s bad,” she said.

Americans didn’t need any more reminders of the things they once took for granted. Coronavirus had already hamstrung travel. Now, treacherous road and runways render traveling, even to safety, a non-starter.

The storms have shut down basic necessities, such as water and electricity, for millions. Some have resorted to warming themselves with grills and automobile heaters — with deadly consequences in a handful of instances.

Those who can travel to stores found long lines and bare shelves, adding the risk of more problems for residents already low on supplies as more nasty weather approaches.

Struggling to keep children warm

Kimberly Hampton of Irving, Texas, which has seen its coldest weather in decades this week, said it’s been impossible to keep her family warm. She ensconced her 7-month-old in blankets in his playpen, while her 3-year-old twins were bundled in layers of clothing, she said. The family was “laying on top of each other” to share body heat, she said.

They spent more than a day in the dark. The frozen milk Hampton had stored for her youngest was thawing. They ran out of firewood and gas for the generator. They bought 2x4s for $3 apiece, but they burn too quickly, she said.

“My husband is going to have to go buy some formula because all my frozen milk is going bad. My other kids are miserable and don’t understand why it’s cold or why they can’t watch TV or have a warm meal,” she said Tuesday.

The storm raises questions about Texas’ electrical infrastructure, about 90% of which is controlled by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. While ERCOT defends its handling of the storm — saying it averted a grid collapse and possible lengthy blackout — Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Wednesday that 34 cities in her county still don’t have power, and “we don’t have an end in sight.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has called for an investigation into ERCOT, which the council’s leadership says it welcomes.

A different kind of disaster

Storms have swept through much of the country. Rapid City, South Dakota, has experienced a cold streak not seen since the 1940s. Nebraska’s Grande Isle and Hastings saw record lows of minus 24 and minus 30, respectively. Still, states accustomed to milder winters have struggled most.

Tennessee already has three storm-related deaths, officials announced. Memphis, home to a FedEx hub integral in distributing the Covid-19 vaccine, has seen below-freezing temperatures since last week. The mercury isn’t expected to climb above 32 until the weekend.

The City Council in Oklahoma City, which experienced a record run of temperatures below 20, ordered energy providers to prioritize health and public safety. In Kentucky, where some residents may be without electricity into next week after three winter storms in less than two weeks, the state has employed techniques such as synchronized plowing and tow plows to sweep snow off the roads. In Little Rock, which is also amid a historic chill, Arkansas’ governor implored residents to conserve energy and deployed the National Guard to help drivers.

Owing to their coastal environs, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas tend to deal with more hurricanes than snow, while many states being hammered in the Southeast see tornadoes more frequently than the ice. In what was a harbinger of the destruction the winter weather would deliver this week, an EF-3 tornado packing 160 mph winds touched down with little warning Monday in Brunswick County, North Carolina.

Kate Gentle and her four kids escaped unscathed, hunkering down in her bedroom and closet as the wind howled and the unexpected twister damaged dozens of homes and killed at least three people.

“We are extremely fortunate,” she said. “God really protected us last night because just a couple damned miles down the road, some of our beautiful community members lost everything.”

Even meteorologists are stunned

North Carolina and much of the Atlantic coast may be in for more hard times. Duke Energy is predicting about a million power outages across the Carolinas, beginning Thursday as the weather system pushes east and up the eastern seaboard.

In Lake Charles, Louisiana, residents were still recovering from last year’s double barrel of Hurricanes Laura and Delta when the cold came. The city of 77,000 was hit Monday with thundersnow — a phenomenon more common in locales such as Buffalo, New York, and Connecticut — and residents were advised Wednesday to boil their water as yet another storm passed through en route to the Northeast. Along with more snow, forecasts brought the threat of heavy ice accumulating later in the day.

“Residents can expect dangerous travel conditions, numerous power outages and extensive tree damage,” the National Weather Service said, as if the area needed more bad news.

A four-hour drive north, in Shreveport, problems with the water supply continued — a common issue in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee as ruptured pipes and power outages shut down service. Barbara Thomas was hoping the bottled water in her garage gets her through the storms.

“This morning, I filled two mop buckets up with snow for the toilets,” the Shreveport woman said. “I will be doing this all day.”

Meteorologist Michael Berry, who has spent 30 years with the weather service, has never seen storms like the ones passing through Shreveport, he said. He worried about residents losing power Wednesday and about the homeless and elderly populations who aren’t being checked on because conditions are so dangerous.

“Never in my career has my office been filled with cots and sleeping bags for stranded employees who don’t want to risk driving home in this mess,” Berry said.

What’s next

Already, politicians are playing a blame game. Experts predict a recovery that will cost billions in Texas alone, but Steve Bowen, head of catastrophe insight at the professional services firm Aon, warns it’s too early to make assessments.

“As temperatures start to warm in Texas, it is expected that we will see more instances of pipes bursting,” he said. “We aren’t quite at the point yet to be talking about damage in the past tense.”

Right now, the important matter is protecting lives in the states hammered by deadly conditions and those bracing for them. The resilient Texas spirit that’s on display after hurricanes is already rising up through the snow and ice.

Non-profits are distributing blankets and meals. Temporary shelters are popping up. San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center is one of many facilities repurposed as a warming center. Officials are disseminating information on how to prevent hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning. Texans with four-wheel drives are pulling vehicles out of ditches and transporting residents to warming confines. At McMurry University in Abilene, where water plants were without power for days, football players carried water from the swimming pool to residence halls so students could use their toilets.

Until the roads are cleared and basic utilities are restored, neighborly altruism will prove vital, which Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price knew when speaking to CNN on Tuesday after a day and a half without water or power herself.

“If people have neighbors that they know don’t have heat and maybe they do, offer to take them in. Let’s watch out for each other. Let’s try to do the right thing by helping. Share what we have,” she said.

CNN’s Alisha Ebrahimji, Jamie Gumbrecht, Judson Jones, Brandon Miller, Jennifer Gray, Paul P. Murphy, Anna-Maja Rappard and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.