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A powerful storm system puts many would-be travelers' plans on ice

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Today was expected to be one of the busiest travel days for those getting away for the holidays.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

But a huge, frigid storm system may put many would-be travelers' plans on ice. Heavy snow, strong winds and life-threatening cold temperatures - even 20 to 30 degrees below zero in some places - could paralyze travel.

MARTÍNEZ: On ice. I heard what you did there, Leila. All right. Joining us now from Chicago is NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper. David, give us a sense of the size of this storm.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Yeah. It's just a massive cold weather system, A, that is moving from the Pacific Northwest through the Northern Rockies and the Great Plains and into the Midwest and Great Lakes today. It'll eventually chill the southeast. And it'll affect dozens of states, if not with snow, then with bitter cold. Temperatures in Texas and along the Gulf Coast and even in parts of Florida will plummet below freezing. And the East Coast and northeast will be hammered, probably, with high winds and heavy rain.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, cold, snow, wind common in the northern states and in the Midwest.

SCHAPER: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: So what makes this particular storm different? And why is it posing such a threat to travel?

SCHAPER: Well, meteorologists say what's unique about this winter storm is not the heavy snowfall amounts - in fact, we're going to probably see less snow than initially predicted - but that this system is exceptionally windy and extremely cold, with temperatures falling dangerously fast, dropping 20 to 35 degrees in just a couple of hours. In some parts yesterday, the record-setting plunges of up to 40 degrees in just half an hour. And that sharp drop in temperatures is accompanied by these wicked winds, sustained winds of up to 40 miles an hour with gusts near 60 miles an hour. National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Bardou says, for drivers, that means blizzard conditions and possibly sudden whiteouts.

MIKE BARDOU: There's going to be enough snow that - combining with the winds to create treacherous driving conditions at minimum. As you go to outer areas, more open areas, significant blowing and drifting is going to be possible to the level where people may get stuck in drifts and then, perhaps, be stranded in the now bitterly cold temperatures.

MARTÍNEZ: What about flying? I mean, this has got to just put a crimp in people's travel plans.

SCHAPER: Yeah, especially for the holidays. It's already affecting air travel, forcing significant flight cancellations the last few days, most notably in Seattle, Denver - now today in Minneapolis. FlightAware says about 500 flights both Tuesday and Wednesday were canceled. More than a thousand are already canceled for today. Chicago's O'Hare Airport is one of the nation's biggest hubs. Delays and cancellations here tend to cause flight disruptions all across the country from coast to coast. Chicago's deputy aviation commissioner, Andrew Velasquez, says crews are working around the clock to keep runways clear.

ANDREW VELASQUEZ: These hardworking individuals will have at their disposal more than 350 pieces of snow removal equipment, more than 400,000 gallons of liquid de-icer for runways and taxiways and more than 5,000 tons of salt.

SCHAPER: You know, despite all that work, nonetheless, nearly 20% of flights going into and out of O'Hare today are already canceled. And some experts expect thousands more flights to be canceled over the next couple of days. Most airlines are waiving rebooking fees if travelers want to change their flight. But if you don't rebook and your flight is still cancelled for any reason, you are entitled to a full refund. The airline may offer you a credit or a voucher. And you can take that if that's what you want. But you don't have to.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's David Schaper in chilly Chicago. Stay warm, David.

SCHAPER: I'll try. Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.