President Joe Biden on Thursday urged Americans to take a winter storm spanning most of the United States "extremely seriously." Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 22 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden urged the public to take precautions while a severe winter storm grips the greater part of the United States, causing thousands of flight cancelations.
Biden held a briefing on Thursday morning, warning of dangerous temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees. The winter storm will affect most of the lower 48 states, even plummeting some of the southernmost states into freezing temperatures.
"Please take this storm extremely seriously," he said. "If you all have travel plans, leave now. Not a joke. I'm sending my staff, if they have plans to leave -- late tonight or tomorrow, I'm telling them to leave now. They can talk to me on the phone. It's not life and death. But it will be, if they don't get out, they may not get out."
The president will be briefed Thursday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Weather Service. The briefing will provide a clearer picture of where assistance may be needed. Biden said he is prepared to mobilize assistance for communities in need.
Biden said he has reached out to at least 26 governors in affected states.
Governors in several states, including Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Wyoming, have declared states of emergency, while officials in Birmingham, Ala., issued the city's first-ever wind chill warning on Wednesday.
Hundreds of millions of Americans remain under severe weather warnings ahead of the holiday weekend.
The extraordinary Arctic cold front brought a combination of wind, snow and freezing rain to the Plains, and is expected to continue sweeping across the Midwest all throughout Thursday before plowing into the East Coast, where authorities are working to alert populations about the approaching danger.
About 215 million people across 48 states are currently under some form of weather advisory related to the storm.
As of 2 p.m. Thursday, 4,818 flights had been canceled around the country because of the storm, while an additional 16,514 flights were delayed, according to FlightAware tracking. Cancelations for Friday flights have already begun.
Those planning to travel by train may experience delays and cancelations as well. On Wednesday, Amtrak announced it would be suspending or canceling some Midwest and cross-country drips from Thursday through Sunday.
"Customers with reservations on trains that are being modified will typically be accommodated on trains with similar departure times or another day," Amtrak said in a news release. "Amtrak will waive additional charges for customers looking to change their reservation during the modified schedule by calling our reservation center at 1-800-USA-RAIL."
The enormous weather system stretched for thousands of miles from the Pacific Northwest, across the Great Plains, and was expected to reach far into the Deep South and Gulf Coast states before blasting the Eastern Seaboard.
Many states in the path of the storm were experiencing blizzard-like conditions, bone-chilling winds and record-breaking temperatures, according to Brian Hurley, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in College Park, Md.
White-out conditions were being reported across the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado, where temperatures plummeted about 40 degrees within one hour on Wednesday, according to authorities.
The high in Denver was only expected to reach minus 2 degrees on Thursday while the low could dip to about minus 40 degrees later in the night, forecasters said.
Winds were the strongest across the Midwest, Ohio Valley and Northeast, and households were warned to expect power outages due to downed trees and power lines. Winds were clocked at 45 mph, as far out as 1,000 miles from the storm's center.
In Illinois, temperatures were expected to dip as low as minus 35 degrees through Saturday, with snowfall up to four inches.
The coldest temperature felt so far has been minus 70 degrees in eastern Wyoming.
Driving conditions were treacherous at best, with authorities in several states shutting down highways as visibility and traction worsened. In South Dakota, more than 100 vehicles got stranded on a highway near Rapid City.
Elsewhere, the Minnesota highway patrol responded to 272 vehicle crashes on Wednesday just as the snow began to fall.
More than 12 inches of snow was expected over the Great Lakes, with wind gusts topping 50 mph.
Meteorologists warned that Northeast states like New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts could see major coastal flooding as high tides combine with powerful southerly winds.