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Winter weather challenges Americans across the country

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you are anywhere in the lower 48 states right now, you are likely feeling it. We're talking about the effects of an extreme weather storm that is stretching coast to coast, north to south. Even if you're not feeling it, chances are you are seeing or hearing about intense conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MIKE SEIDEL: Right now, we're gusting 45 miles an hour. We're at the lakefront.

LAURA BANNON: Well below zero, in the double digits, minus 10...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're under a hard freeze warning, pipe-bursting cold tonight...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Dangerously cold - wind chills anywhere from about 30 to nearly 45 below zero...

KELLY: Pipe-bursting cold - it makes me shiver just to hear that. Meanwhile, the weather is already disrupting holiday travel plans, and more than a million people are without power. NPR's David Schaper is tracking the storm's impact from Chicago. And, David, just give us the latest. How bad is it?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, it's pretty bad. This is a massive storm system, such a massive storm system that it actually collided with another. And according to the National Weather Service, more than 200 million Americans are under some kind of winter weather warning or advisory. You know, that's 60% of the country. Here's New York's governor, Kathy Hochul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHY HOCHUL: It is throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink. We've had ice, flooding, snow, freezing temperatures and everything that Mother Nature could wallop at us this weekend.

KELLY: What about power outages, which are not just a hassle but dangerous with temperatures this cold? How are efforts to get the power back on going?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, as you mentioned, Mary Louise, at least 1.4 million homes and businesses are without power. And those outages are hitting folks really all across the country from Washington state, Idaho and Montana, south down to Texas and Oklahoma, east into Georgia and up into the northeast into states like New York and Connecticut. Scott Aaronson is with the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for power companies. And he says getting the power restored in weather like this is a significant challenge.

SCOTT AARONSON: Sometimes accessing these areas can be really challenging with downed power lines, with downed trees, with very icy roads. Also, bucket trucks - crews cannot go up in bucket trucks if the wind is higher than 35 miles an hour. And so those combination of things will limit the ability of crews to get out there and get the power back on.

KELLY: What about travel? I am planning to fly tomorrow. Millions of Americans are trying to get somewhere to see friends, families, celebrate the holidays. Are we going to make it?

SCHAPER: Good luck. Airlines have canceled 5,000 flights today already. That's about 1 in 5 flights that were scheduled for today. And of the flights that are taking off, thousands are delayed. You know, that's on top of nearly 3,000 flights canceled yesterday. And there's delays and cancellations affecting airports, again, all across the country from Seattle to Boston. But most notably, hub airports like Denver, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York, those tend to have cascading effects on the system nationwide. Also, roads in some areas are impassable and closed because of the drifting snow and whiteout conditions.

KELLY: We keep saying it's cold. It's really cold. Like, how cold? What is the temperature there where you are in Chicago and elsewhere around the country?

SCHAPER: Well, we haven't had it this cold here in Chicago in almost two years. The temperature dropped 50 degrees over the course of the day yesterday to about seven below zero this morning. Across the Midwest and the northern Rockies and the plains, it's not just below zero, but it's 10, 20, even 30 degrees below zero before adding in the wind chill. And when it's this bitterly cold, things don't just feel different. They actually sound different.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CRUNCHING IN SNOW)

SCHAPER: That's me walking over the fresh snow with an air temperature of about five below today. And you hear how it squeaks and crunches?

KELLY: Yeah.

SCHAPER: The National Weather Service actually calls this life-threatening cold, and that's certainly true of those who are homeless. The city of Chicago is working with nonprofits, sending teams out to check on the city's hundreds of unhoused residents and bring them into shelters if they're willing. I stopped by a Salvation Army warming shelter today where Lieutenant Shannon Cabrera says the doors are always open. And she says there are a lot of people in need.

SHANNON CABRERA: Oh, yes. I think especially today, as it's just dangerous outside to be in negative degrees - right? - we see people who stop in still looking for food, looking for just - stop somewhere for coffee, just warm up.

KELLY: Just warm up. That sounds great. NPR's David Schaper reporting from Chicago. Thank you.

SCHAPER: All right. Stay warm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.