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The bitter cold gripping the U.S. is blamed for at least 40 deaths, 14 in Tennessee

A person walks in icy conditions in downtown Florence, Ala., on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.
Dan Busey
/
The TimesDaily via AP
A person walks in icy conditions in downtown Florence, Ala., on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Updated January 19, 2024 at 12:29 AM ET

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A new layer of ice formed over parts of Tennessee on Thursday after a deadly storm blanketed the state in snow and sent temperatures plummeting earlier this week — part of a broader bout of bitter cold sweeping the country from Oregon to the Northeast.

Authorities said at least 14 deaths in Tennessee alone are blamed on the system, which dumped more than 9 inches of snow since Sunday on parts of Nashville, a city that rarely see such accumulations. Temperatures also plunged below zero in parts of the state, creating the largest power demand ever across the seven states served by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Thursday's freezing rain compounded problems, adding a thin glaze of ice in some areas ahead of another expected plunge in temperatures over the weekend. Many schools and government offices have closed, and the state Legislature also shut down, canceling in-person meetings all week.

Near Portland, Ore., ice slowly began to melt in areas south of the city as warmer temperatures and rain arrived Thursday. But a National Weather Service advisory through Friday warned of freezing rain and gusting winds of up to 40 mph for parts of the state. Most Portland-area school districts canceled classes for a third straight day because of slick roads and water damage from burst frozen pipes.

On Wednesday, a power line fell on a parked car in northeastern Portland, killing three people and injuring a baby during an ice storm that made driving in parts of the Pacific Northwest treacherous.

More than 40 deaths nationwide have been attributed to the frigid weather in the past week.

The dead in Tennessee included a box truck driver who slid into a tractor-trailer on an interstate, a man who fell through a skylight while cleaning a roof, and a woman who died of hypothermia after being found unresponsive in her home. The deaths occurred in nine Tennessee counties spanning more than 400 miles.

Jesse Asher, left, and Eric Magas shovel snow on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A snowstorm blanketed the area with up to 9 inches of snow and frigid temperatures.
George Walker IV / AP
/
AP
Jesse Asher, left, and Eric Magas shovel snow on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A snowstorm blanketed the area with up to 9 inches of snow and frigid temperatures.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol said it also investigated three fatal car wrecks caused by the storm, more than 200 wrecks involving injuries and more than 600 others in which no one was hurt.

Shelby County, which includes Memphis and is the state's largest county, has had the most deaths, five. But state and local officials have declined to release many details about the deaths, citing privacy concerns for the families involved. Tennessee's Department of Health also refused to confirm accounts provided by local authorities of deaths likely tied to the 14-death total.

Cory Mueller, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Nashville, said that with another cold spell expected this weekend, Monday will bring the first chance for significant melting.

"At least in Tennessee, it takes a little bit to get the roads cleared up," Mueller said by phone. "With the cold temperatures, that led to the snow staying on the roads much longer."

Freezing temperatures spread as far south as North Florida on Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service said.

After several days of cold that kept all but the heartiest indoors in Chicago, Thursday brought some relief, with afternoon temperatures of around 25 degrees.

Greater Rochester International Airport firefighters assist passengers off an American Airlines plane that slid off a snowy taxiway after a flight from Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Rochester, N.Y.
Vicky Ferguson / via AP
/
via AP
Greater Rochester International Airport firefighters assist passengers off an American Airlines plane that slid off a snowy taxiway after a flight from Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Rochester, N.Y.

In western New York, the icy weather was blamed for three deaths in three days. Then on Thursday, an American Airlines plane slid off a snowy taxiway in Rochester, New York, after a flight from Philadelphia. No injuries were reported.

Five people were struck and killed by a tractor-trailer on Interstate 81 in northeastern Pennsylvania after they left their vehicles following a separate crash on slick pavement.

In Kansas, authorities were investigating the death of an 18-year-old whose body was found Wednesday in a ditch about a half-mile from where his vehicle had become stuck in the snow.

And in Mississippi, where officials reported five winter weather-related deaths, an estimated 12,000 customers in the capital city of Jackson were dealing with low water pressure Thursday. It was the latest setback for the city's long-troubled water system.

Pipe breaks accelerated Wednesday when the frozen ground began to thaw and expand, putting pressure on buried pipes, Jackson water officials said. The water system experienced a spike in pressure when people filled their bathtubs in response to what officials called a "deliberate misinformation campaign" on social media about the city's water supply, Jackson water manager Ted Henifin said.

Memphis' power and water company, meanwhile, asked customers to avoid nonessential water use because of high demand and low pressure, citing leaks. Memphis, Light, Gas and Water said it had repaired 27 broken water mains since Saturday. Additionally, customers in two areas of Memphis were facing a precautionary boil-water advisory due to low pressure, though the utility's president and CEO, Doug McGowen, said water quality wasn't an issue.

Joshua Phillips was walking his dog Thursday in Memphis as cars crawled by, skidding and sliding. He said he had shoveled snow off of his back patio and driveway but they were now covered in a thin coat of ice. Parts of the city saw nearly 5 inches of snow from the earlier storm.

Phillips said he helped a man push his car, which was stuck in the ice.

"What I'm more concerned about are the people who are unhoused and are outside in storms like this and don't have any place to go and don't have the proper social services," he said.

In Nashville, Will Compton of the nonprofit Open Table Nashville, which helps homeless people, was canvassing downtown for people in need of supplies or rides to warming centers or shelters.

On Thursday, he stopped his SUV outside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to hand out warm hats, blankets, protein drinks and socks to a couple of men standing outdoors as icy rain fell.

"People who are poor and people who are homeless are getting hit the hardest," said Compton. He added: "A cold spell kind of predictably happens once a winter at least, and yet we're still kind of caught scrambling and finding enough shelter beds for people."

Aaron Robison, 62, has been staying at one of the city's warming centers and said it has been pretty full.

When he was younger, he said, the cold didn't bother him. But now with arthritis in his hip and having to rely on two canes, he needed to get out of the cold.

"Thank God for people helping people on the streets. That's a blessing," he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press