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Massive winter storm causes travel issues and power outages in parts of the U.S.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

There's a winter storm the size of which is rarely seen, and the gusty winds, heavy snow, rain and freezing rain is affecting millions of people in 25 states. Thousands of flights are canceled, many roads are impassable, and hundreds of thousands of people are without power. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Snow plows and salt trucks are out in force from Texas to Maine as a massive winter storm wreaks havoc all the way from the Southern Plains into the Northeast.

ANDREW ORRISON: This is a very large winter storm. We're talking about tens of millions of people that are being impacted by winter weather hazards.

SCHAPER: National Weather Service meteorologist Andrew Orrison.

ORRISON: It's everything from heavy snow to areas of heavy sleet and freezing rain, so you're getting a lot of ice accumulations and also the very cold temperatures. And we've seen a lot of cold air just in the last couple of days kind of pull across the Northern Plains and the Midwest area, and that's been funneling down to the South.

SCHAPER: Driving conditions across a huge part of the country's midsection are dangerous. In the St. Louis area, snowplow drivers are having a hard time keeping up as strong and gusty winds whip the light snow into drifts and completely cover roads just minutes after they're plowed. Amie Bolin-Lacey got stuck on Interstate 74 in central Illinois while trying to take her sick dog to the vet.

AMIE BOLIN-LACEY: There's a bunch of semis in the ditches. The wind's starting to pick up, which is blowing. And the ice - or the roads are super icy. And so it's just - us going that slow, it's crazy how the winds push at us.

SCHAPER: In Wisconsin and elsewhere, there are reports of rare winter tornadoes. By early this afternoon, airlines had already canceled nearly 5,000 flights. Kathleen Bangs of the flight tracking firm FlightAware says that's the most weather-related cancellations in one day since Hurricane Sandy a decade ago.

KATHLEEN BANGS: The airlines saw this coming way in advance, and so they really had time to prepare. And the difference we're seeing is that they've cancelled their flights preemptively.

SCHAPER: And Banks says that's actually good news for would-be air travelers compared to other recent airline meltdowns.

BANGS: We're seeing empty terminals. We're seeing terminals right now where there's nobody instead of what we saw some of these other times, which were thousands of stranded passengers sleeping on top of mountains of luggage.

SCHAPER: As of early this afternoon, more than 250,000 people across the country were without power, more than half of them in Tennessee. In Texas, utility crews have been working around the clock to avoid the devastating, widespread outages seen last winter. Jen Myers is with Dallas-based electricity provider Oncor.

JEN MYERS: It's really an all-hands-on-deck situation. Our linemen are out there working 16-hour shifts 24 hours a day, so there is always someone out there restoring power all across the area.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN BLARING)

SCHAPER: The treacherous conditions are slowing down first responders and making it more difficult to get to those in need of assistance. But a winter storm of this magnitude isn't all bad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ready? Go.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Screaming).

SCHAPER: At Gompers Park on Chicago's northwest side, some families are taking advantage of the freshly fallen snow to go sledding. Tammy Torok is one of the parents venturing out in the bitter cold.

TAMMY TOROK: I got to say I was debating about staying home, not going to lie, especially with two kids and trekking with two sleds and a stroller and everything. But, you know, it's Chicago winter. You're going to stay home every single day? You just can't (laughter). Kids need to have fun.

SCHAPER: But to the southeast and northeast of here, winter storm advisories and warnings remain in place, and bitter cold temperatures in much of the country could keep all of this snow and ice around for a while.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "DEFINITIVE BREAKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.