Winter Storm Brings Heavy Snow, Ice From California to Maine, Grounding More Than 1,500 Flights

Date: Thursday, February 23, 2o23
Source: Wall Street Journal

Strong winds and heavy snowfall whipped western and central states Wednesday, causing airlines to cancel more than a thousand flights and leaving tens of thousands of homes without power as a winter storm barreled across the U.S.

More than 1,500 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were canceled by 5:30 p.m. ET, according to FlightAware, a website that tracks flight data.

Southwest Airlines Co. had canceled 262 flights, Delta Air Lines Inc. 271, and regional carrier SkyWest Inc. 355, with Minneapolis-Saint Paul International, Detroit Metro and Denver International the worst-impacted airports. Southwest warned of more flight cancellations and delays as the week progresses.

Delta and Southwest said they were closely monitoring weather forecasts and keeping customers up-to-date on conditions. A spokesperson for SkyWest said the winter storms had affected multiple airport hubs across the country.

Gusts of up to 64 miles an hour swept parts of Northern California, while forecasters in the Midwest warned some areas to brace for record snowfall.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order Tuesday, activating the state National Guard to help emergency operations and stranded motorists. Between 3 to 5 inches of snow fell in the Twin Cities by Wednesday morning as forecasters warned residents that another 10 to 15 inches will accumulate by Thursday.

“As we’ve talked about for days, round 2 is on the way and it will pack a punch,” the National Weather Service Twin Cities said.

Winter weather advisories have been issued across at least 20 states spanning from California to Maine. School districts in states including Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming closed Wednesday due to the weather, and churches canceled Ash Wednesday services.

In the West, more than 71,000 power outages were reported in California, with another 14,000 reported in Arizona and more than 16,000 in New Mexico, according to Outages also hit the Midwest, with more than 29,000 customers in Illinois without power Wednesday evening and more than 37,000 in Michigan in the dark.

California utility company PG&E Corp. reported widespread outages in the Bay Area, and warned downed trees and debris could lead to more.

“We encourage customers to prepare for the storm now,” PG&E Vice President of Emergency Preparedness and Response Angie Gibson said.

High winds, rain and low-elevation snow could result in trees and other debris falling into power lines, the company added.

In Southern California, the National Weather Service issued a rare blizzard warning for mountain areas in parts of the Los Angeles and Ventura counties from early Friday until late Saturday afternoon. Heavy snowfall and wind gusts reaching up to 75 mph are forecast to result in near-zero visibility, forecasters with the National Weather Service in Los Angeles said Wednesday.

The National Weather Service also expanded blizzard warnings in Wyoming, where a swath of the central part of the state may experience whiteout conditions Wednesday. “Travel should be restricted to emergencies only,” forecasters in Riverton, Wyo., said.

The storm is expected to bring between 1 to 2 feet of snow across western mountain ranges, with heavier snowfall expected at higher elevations. Gusty 50 to 60 mile-an-hour winds will hit the West and High Plains, reaching as high as 80 mph in some places, the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center said.

Michael Wessler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said the storm has been one of the largest this winter—not in terms of snowfall, but in the size of the area it has covered.

“We’ve had everything from northwestern Utah to southeastern Utah, and from the mountains to almost the Mojave Desert,” Mr. Wessler said.

A second system is expected to come quickly on its heels and bring more heavy snow showers, he said. The intermountain west region will catch a brief break, possibly on Friday into Saturday, before potentially seeing additional light snowfall on Sunday, Mr. Wessler said.

At Salt Lake City International Airport, more than 14 inches of snow had fallen by Wednesday morning, the local National Weather Service office said. Snow removal crews cleared the airfield overnight, the airport said Wednesday. Forty flights from the airport had been canceled as of Wednesday evening, according to FlightAware.

The travel disruptions come about two months after Southwest canceled thousands of flights following a winter storm, resulting in one of the worst industry meltdowns in recent memory.

Southwest has said it is working to address problems that led to the major operational meltdown in the final weeks of 2022, when it canceled more than 16,700 flights over roughly a 10-day period. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson told a U.S. Senate panel earlier this month that the airline was unable to handle the extreme winter weather that swept across the country. The resulting cascade of last-minute cancellations overwhelmed a technology system the airline uses to help reassign crews after disruptions, and eventually Southwest slashed its schedule for three days to reset itself.

Mr. Watterson said the airline has efforts under way to address the technology issues—adding new functionality to its crew software system—and to bolster the airline’s resiliency in the face of severe winter weather.

Meanwhile, the airline has put in place an early indicator dashboard that it has said will help it identify approaching signs of strain to its operation, and has trained volunteers who can serve as backup support for crew schedulers if needed.

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