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A huge storm brings icy temperatures and canceled flights to a majority of Americans

The downtown Chicago skyline is obscured by blowing snow and steam rising from Lake Michigan, as seen from Montrose Harbor on Friday, in Chicago.
Erin Hooley
/
AP
The downtown Chicago skyline is obscured by blowing snow and steam rising from Lake Michigan, as seen from Montrose Harbor on Friday, in Chicago.

Updated December 23, 2022 at 8:09 PM ET

A historic winter storm is subjecting roughly 60% of the U.S. population to a winter weather advisory or warning Friday, leading to thousands of canceled flights, warming shelters at capacity, and blizzard conditions on the eve of Christmas weekend.

The immense frigid blast is creating hazards from the U.S.-Canadian border to the Gulf Coast, and spans the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast. The National Weather Service estimated more than 200 million people were under some form of winter weather advisory or warning in "one of the greatest extents of winter weather warnings and advisories ever."

"This is not like a snow day when you were a kid," President Joe Biden said Thursday. "This is serious stuff."

High winds produced dangerous wind chill readings across the central and eastern U.S. last night, with the wind chill in Denver reaching minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit and Cheyenne, Wyo., falling to minus 51 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Our troopers, our highway maintainers, our snowplow drivers have been up all night long," Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon told NPR Thursday. "They've just been doing a phenomenal job and so we've got traffic moving again and we feel pretty good about our circumstances."

Mark Sorter clears snow on Friday from a downtown ice skating rink in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall / AP
/
AP
Mark Sorter clears snow on Friday from a downtown ice skating rink in Des Moines, Iowa.

More than 5,300 flights in the U.S. were canceled as of Friday night, according to flight tracker FlightAware. That's well past Thursday's total of nearly 2,700 flights.

"This system will have increasingly widespread impacts to travel going into the busy holiday travel time late this week, along with the potential for power outages from the expected high winds, heavy snows, significant icing and overall increased power consumption in places," NWS said Friday.

Pedestrians navigate slippery streets Thursday in Chicago's famed Loop. A massive winter storm will be hovering over the majority of the country for a few days featuring strong sub-zero wind chills and major snow accumulation.
Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/
AP
Pedestrians navigate slippery streets Thursday in Chicago's famed Loop. A massive winter storm will be hovering over the majority of the country for a few days featuring strong sub-zero wind chills and major snow accumulation.

More than 1.2 million homes and businesses suffered power outages Friday night, according to PowerOutage.us. States hit the worst include Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia and Tennessee.

Across the country, some warming shelters were operating at full capacity.

Denver has three 24-hour warming centers for anyone who needs a warm place to stay. One of them, the Denver Coliseum, reached far past capacity Wednesday night, accommodating 359 people in a space meant for 225, the city of Denver said. All three centers will remain open through noon on Saturday.

Travelers wait in line to check-in for their flights Thursday at Terminal 1 ahead of the Christmas Holiday at MSP Airport in Bloomington, Minn.
Kerem Yücel / Minnesota Public Radio via AP
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Minnesota Public Radio via AP
Travelers wait in line to check-in for their flights Thursday at Terminal 1 ahead of the Christmas Holiday at MSP Airport in Bloomington, Minn.

The issue of homelessness amid freezing temperatures sparked online conversations about how to get more people off the streets in these dangerous conditions.

"As a public defender, one of the clearest indicators of societal failure was when I'd meet new clients who purposefully got arrested so they'd find some warmth on Rikers Island instead of freezing to death on the street," Columbia University lecturer and longtime public defender Scott Hechinger wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

As forecasters predicted, a bomb cyclone, a rapidly intensifying storm created when atmospheric pressure drops quickly, developed near the Great Lakes. The bomb cyclone is bringing blizzard conditions, including heavy snow and high winds to the area.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Ahn
Ashley Ahn is an intern for the Digital News and Graphics desks. She previously covered the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for CNN's health and medical unit and the trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers for CNN's Atlanta News Bureau. She also wrote pieces for USA TODAY and served as the Executive Editor of her college's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. Recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Ahn is pursuing a master's degree in computer science at Columbia University.