February 13–17, 2021 North American winter storm

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February 13–17, 2021 North American winter storm
Category 3 "Major" (RSI: 8.048)
Winter Storm Uri on 2-16-2021.jpg
Satellite imagery of the winter storm over the eastern third of the United States on February 16.
TypeExtratropical cyclone
Winter storm
Blizzard
Ice storm
Tornado outbreak
FormedFebruary 13, 2021
DissipatedFebruary 24, 2021
Lowest pressure960 mb (28.35 inHg)
Tornadoes confirmed5
Max. rating1EF3 tornado
Duration of tornado outbreak27 hours, 55 minutes
Maximum snowfall or ice accretionSnow: 26 in (66 cm) in Detroit, Oregon
Ice: 1.50 in (3.8 cm) in Canby, Oregon
Damage~$19 billion (2021 USD)[1]
Power outages> 9,924,000[2][3]
CasualtiesAt least 82 killed[4][5]
Areas affectedPacific Northwest, Western United States, Southern United States, Eastern United States, Northern Mexico, Eastern Canada, British Isles, Iceland, Southern Greenland

1Most severe tornado damage; see Fujita scale
2Time from first tornado to last tornado

The February 13–17, 2021 North American winter storm, unofficially referred to as Winter Storm Uri,[6][7] was a major winter and ice storm that had widespread impacts across the United States, Northern Mexico, and parts of Canada from February 13 to 17. The storm started out in the Pacific Northwest and quickly moved into the Southern United States, before moving on to the Midwestern and Northeastern United States a couple of days later.

The storm resulted in over 170 million Americans being placed under various winter weather alerts being issued by the National Weather Service in the United States across the country and caused blackouts for over 9.9 million people in the U.S. and Mexico, most notably the 2021 Texas power crisis.[2][3][8] The blackouts were the largest in the U.S. since the Northeast blackout of 2003.[9] The storm also brought severe destructive weather to Southeastern United States, including several tornadoes. On February 16, there were at least 20 direct fatalities and 13 indirect fatalities attributed to the storm;[10][11][12][5][6] by February 21, the death toll had risen to at least 82, including 70 people in the United States and 12 people in Mexico.[4][5] The damages from the blackouts are expected to reach $19 billion (2021 USD).[1]

Meteorological history[edit]

On February 13, a frontal storm developed off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and moved ashore, before moving southeastward, with the storm becoming disorganized in the process.[13][14] During this time, the storm reached a minimum pressure of 992 millibars (29.3 inHg) over the Rocky Mountains.[14] On the same day, The Weather Channel gave the storm the unofficial name Winter Storm Uri, due to the expected impacts from the storm;[6] the Federal Communications Commission later adopted the name in their reports after February 17.[7] Over the next couple of days the storm began to develop as it entered the Southern United States and moved into Texas.[15] On February 15, the system developed a new surface low off the coast of the Florida Panhandle, as the storm turned northeastward and expanded in size.[16]

On February 16, the storm developed another low-pressure center to the north as the system grew more organized, while moving towards the northeast.[17] Later that day, the storm broke in half, with the newer storm moving northward into Quebec, while the original system moved off the East Coast of the U.S.[18] By the time the winter storm exited the U.S. late on February 16, the combined snowfall from the multiple winter storms within the past month had left nearly 75% of the contiguous United States covered by snow.[19] On February 17, the storm's secondary low dissipated as the system approached landfall on Newfoundland, intensifying in the process.[20] At 12:00 UTC that day, the storm's central pressure reached 985 millibars (29.1 inHg), as the center of the storm moved over Newfoundland.[21] On the same day, the storm was given the name Belrem by the Free University of Berlin.[22] The storm continued to strengthen as it moved across the North Atlantic, with the storm's central pressure dropping to 960 millibars (28 inHg) by February 19.[23][24] On February 20, the storm developed a second-low pressure area and gradually began to weaken, as it moved northwestward towards Iceland.[25][26] Afterward, the storm turned westward and moved across southern Greenland on February 22, weakening even further as it did so.[27] The storm then stalled south of Greenland, while continuing to weaken, before dissipating on February 24.[28][29]

Preparations and impact[edit]

United States[edit]

On February 14, the expected impacts from the storm resulted in over 170 million Americans being placed under various winter weather alerts across the United States.[8] Over 120 million of those people were placed under winter storm warnings or ice storm warnings by the National Weather Service.[30] The winter storm caused power grids to fail across the U.S., causing blackouts for over 5.2 million homes and businesses, the vast majority of which were in the state of Texas, which became one of the largest blackout events in modern U.S. history,[2][3][31] the largest one since the Northeast blackout of 2003.[9] The storm left at least 70 people dead across the United States, the vast majority of whom were in Texas.[4][32] Insurers estimated that the damages from the blackouts may reach $19 billion, which is roughly equal to the amount of insured damage that Hurricane Harvey caused in Texas in 2017.[1]

Northwest[edit]

Snow in Portland, Oregon, on February 14, 2021

The winter storm was the second of the two snowstorms that swept through the region within a one-week period. 11.1 inches (28 cm) of snow in Seattle, Washington compounded the previous storm.[33] This was the largest two-day snowfall recorded in Seattle since 1972.[34]

The Portland metro area was hit very hard by the storm, which brought a mix of snow and ice to the region.[33] 9.4 inches (24 cm) of snow fell at Portland International Airport on February 12–13, the most snow to fall over this city in a two-day period since 1968.[34] Over 270,000 people were left without power in the region,[35] and the Governor declared a state of emergency.[36][2]

9.9 inches (25 cm) of snow also fell in Boise, Idaho during this same time period, making this the largest recorded two-day snowfall for that city since 1996.[34]

Southwest[edit]

The storm brought heavy snow and bitterly cold temperatures to Colorado and New Mexico. Snow amounts in Colorado ranged from a few inches in the north to over 2 feet (0.61 m) in the San Juan Mountains in the southern part of the state.[37] In New Mexico, the storm system brought a combination of heavy snow, strong winds, and bitterly cold temperatures. On February 14th, a Blizzard Warning was issued for the Albuquerque metro area due to strong winds exceeding 50 mph, cold temperatures, and blowing snow.[38] Meanwhile Winter Storm Warnings were issued for much of the rest of New Mexico. Up to two feet of snow fell in the mountains of northern and central New Mexico. Snow amounts in the Albuquerque metro area ranged from 2 to 6 inches. Interstate 40 through the Albuquerque metro area was closed for several hours due to numerous motor vehicle crashes caused by the icy conditions.[39] Southern New Mexico received up to two inches of snow accumulation, with locally higher amounts in the mountains.[40]

Central and Southern Plains[edit]

Drone footage of Houston

With the threat of icing, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) pre-treated roadways, using a brine-salt mix, across six Southeast Texas counties.[41] For the first time on record, the National Weather Service (through its 13 regional offices serving Texas and adjoining portions of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana) issued Winter Storm Warnings for all 254 counties in the state.[6]

On February 14–15, the storm dropped prolific amounts of snow across Texas and Oklahoma. As a result of the winter storm and a concurrent cold wave, power grids—unable to sustain the higher-than-normal energy and heating demand from residential and business customers—failed across the Texas Interconnection; at the peak of the outages, at least 4.5 million Texas residents were left without electricity.[3][2] Two of the electricity reliability commissions servicing the Southern U.S., the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), ordered rolling blackouts for 14 states amid the frigid temperatures, in an attempt to manage the strain on the power grid and prevent widespread, long-duration blackouts. The controlled outages were initiated after the Southwest Power Pool declared Level 3 Emergency Energy Alerts on both February 15 and 16; the SPP and ERCOT faced criticism by government officials and residents in the region for the limited advanced notice of the outages, and for not outlining the specific areas serviced by SPP partner utilities that would be affected.[42][43][44]

Amateur video footage of rows of empty shelves in a Texas Walmart store

At one point during the rolling outages, over 4.2 million people across the south-central states were left without power, with over 3.5 million of them in Texas alone.[45] The rolling blackouts led to calls by Governor Greg Abbott for the Texas Legislature to conduct investigations into preparations and decisions undertaken by ERCOT in advance of the storm.[46] Some of the blackouts were initiated as several cities throughout the Central and Southern Plains experienced record overnight low temperatures: on February 16 alone, daily record lows were broken in Oklahoma City (−14 °F [−26 °C], the city's coldest temperature since 1899 and its second-coldest on record), Dallas (−2 °F [−19 °C], the city's coldest temperature since 1930 and its second-coldest on record), Houston (13 °F [−11 °C], the city's coldest temperature since 1989), San Antonio (12 °F [−11 °C], the city's coldest temperature since 1989) and Little Rock (−1 °F [−18 °C], the city's coldest temperature since 1989), with all-time low temperatures being set in Fayetteville, Arkansas (−20 °F [−29 °C]) and Hastings, Nebraska (−30 °F [−34 °C]).[47]


Satellite image of Houston, Texas on February 7 (left) before the storm and on Feb 16 (right) after the storm.[48] The dark patches in the latter image depict areas left without electricity.

Rolling blackouts, longer-duration power outages and ice accretion caused by the precipitation and unusually cold temperatures (for the region's climate) caused widespread disruptions to water distribution systems across the Southern Plains. Water line breaks occurred in many areas, and power disruptions impacted water treatment plants in parts of the region that forced several cities—including Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Abilene, Austin, Killeen and Arlington, Texas; and Shreveport, Louisiana—to enact residential boil-water orders (i.e., to boil drinking water for one minute in order kill bacteria and other pathogens);[49][50][51][52][53][54] By February 18, more than 13 million people in Texas lived in areas covered by boil-water advisories.[55] In cases where residents had no energy sources to heat water, purchasing bottled water was advised;[56] in Houston, this led to shortages of bottled water in grocery stores.[57] In addition, pipe bursts caused significant damage to numerous residences in the Dallas area and other areas of North Texas.

Sea turtles being rescued at Texas State Aquarium. Thousands of sea turtles were rescued during the storm.[58]

After consulting Dallas mayor Eric Johnson, two NHL games between the Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars that were scheduled for the evenings of February 15 and 16 at American Airlines Center were postponed,[59][60] and two games between the Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning scheduled for February 18 and 20 were also postponed.[61][62] In contrast, the Oklahoma City Thunder opted to hold their February 16 home game against the Portland Trail Blazers as scheduled, even as most other buildings in Downtown Oklahoma City decided to turn off lighting and electrical equipment overnight to reduce strain on the city's power grid; the NBA team stated that Chesapeake Energy Arena would take steps to conserve power while the game was being played, including turning off concourse lighting, video panels, exterior signage and most outdoor lighting.[63][64]

A visible satellite loop of a snow-covered South Central U.S. in the aftermath of the winter storm on February 16

Due to the deregulated electricity market and the spike in demand, since February 10, wholesale electricity prices have gone up in some places by 10,000 percent.[65] As a result, some Texans are receiving exceptionally expensive electric bills[66] as high as $450 for one day of use.[67] On February 18, San Antonio firefighters fighting a large apartment fire caused by a water heater explosion were forced to use water trucks as fire hydrants had become inoperable due to water shortages.[68] On February 17, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) stirred controversy when he was filmed boarding an airplane to Cancún, Mexico with his family. He returned to Houston the following day, and admitted he had scheduled the vacation to avoid freezing conditions inside their home.[69]

Snow in Norman, Oklahoma on February 15, 2021

In Oklahoma, winter storm warnings were issued for all 77 counties in the state ahead of the storm by National Weather Service offices in Norman, Tulsa, Amarillo and Shreveport. Governor Kevin Stitt also issued a statewide winter weather State of Emergency on February 12, as the state was already dealing with effects from minor winter weather events and prolonged sub-freezing temperatures from the days prior.[70] Widespread areas of 3–8 inches (7.6–20.3 cm) were recorded throughout the state with locally higher amounts in some areas. Roosevelt saw 12 inches (30 cm) of snow, the highest total measured in the state during the event.[71]

The heavy, blowing snow caused massive travel issues across the state on February 14. By 5:20 p.m. CST that day, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol had responded to 56 non-injury collisions, 24 injury collisions, and 116 motorist assists.[72] A fiery crash involving multiple vehicles, including two semi-trucks, shut down the Turner Turnpike near Hiwassee Road in northeastern Oklahoma County, with westbound traffic being diverted to the Kickapoo Turnpike and eastbound traffic being diverted to I-35.[73] Another vehicle collision on I-35 near Braman caused one fatality.[12] The record cold temperatures during the event also caused a dam at Lake Overholser to completely freeze over.[74] On February 18, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality issued boil-water recommendations for residents who experienced water service outages from the bitter temperatures and snowpack;[75] Oklahoma City,[76] Tulsa[77] and other cities (including Shawnee, Blackwell and Spencer[78][79][80]) and rural water districts[81] in the state issued temporary residential boil-water advisories or mandatory boil orders between February 18 and February 20.

By February 16, the storm had killed at least 17 people across the South.[82][10] By February 18, the death toll rose to at least 47.[83][84][85] At least 10 people in Texas died in weather-related incidents since February 14, including a mother and a child due to carbon monoxide poisoning.[86] Eight other people in the South, outside of Texas, have died as a result of the system or through indirect storm-related incidents.[86] In Kentucky, a man died after slipping on ice and then succumbing to hypothermia.[87]

Great Lakes[edit]

Map of snow emergencies in Ohio from February 15–16, 2021, at their most severe levels

Chicago along with other cities in northern Illinois received up to 14–17 in (36–43 cm) of snow along with winds up to 20 mph (32 km/h). Indianapolis, Indiana received about 7 inches of snow as well as Detroit, Michigan also had 7 inches of snow. Toledo, Ohio received 14.5 in (37 cm) of snow, the third-highest two-day snowfall record, and the highest since 1912. Other Northern Ohio cities received up to 10–12 in (25–30 cm) of snow while cities in the central part received up to 3 in (7.6 cm) of snow like in Columbus, Ohio.[88]

Southeast[edit]

High-end EF3 damage to a home where two fatalities took place north of Sunset Beach, North Carolina.

Virginia implemented a winter weather state of emergency effective February 12, which continued into the following week's storm.[89]

A severe weather outbreak struck the Southeastern United States on February 15, with large hail, damaging winds, and five tornadoes affecting five states.[90] An EF2 tornado destroyed two homes and damaged trees in and northeast of Damascus, Georgia, injuring five people. A more destructive high-end EF3 tornado struck the Ocean Ridge Plantation neighborhood near Sunset Beach, North Carolina, causing major damage to many homes, some of which were leveled or swept away, before moving into rural areas and damaging or snapping hundreds of trees. This tornado killed three and injured 10.[91][92]

In Memphis, Tennessee, the city declared a state of emergency on February 17,[93] after the city saw a record daily snowfall accumulation of 5.7 in (14 cm),[94] bringing the total snowfall since February 15 to 10–12 in (25–30 cm).[95] The heavy snowfall disrupted FedEx operations at its Memphis hub, which hampered COVID-19 vaccine distribution nationally.[96] On February 18, Memphis's public utility MLGW issued its first ever boil water order as water pressure levels dropped, affecting 260,000 households.[97] The boil water order was lifted on February 25.[98]

List of confirmed tornadoes – Monday, February 15, 2021[note 1]
EF# Location County / Parish State Start Coord. Time (UTC) Path length Max width Summary
EF0 NW of Panama City Beach Bay FL 30°13′16″N 85°53′23″W / 30.2211°N 85.8898°W / 30.2211; -85.8898 (Panama City Beach Beach (Feb. 15, EF0)) 20:01–20:03 1.3 mi (2.1 km) 50 yd (46 m) Minor damage to structures, poles, benches, and fencing occurred near the beach and at Frank Brown Park.[99]
EF0 SE of Gilberts Mill Washington FL 30°35′58″N 85°27′21″W / 30.5994°N 85.4557°W / 30.5994; -85.4557 (Gilberts Mill (Feb. 15, EF0)) 20:38–20:39 0.7 mi (1.1 km) 100 yd (91 m) A brief tornado pulled an outbuilding from its anchors, lofting it 20 yards (18 m). It was anchored by wooden poles in shallow concrete. Several pine trees were snapped along a driveway. Further north, a double wide manufactured home had minor roof damage. Several other trees were uprooted along the path.[100]
EF0 NW of Lake City Columbia FL 30°12′25″N 82°44′17″W / 30.207°N 82.738°W / 30.207; -82.738 (Lake City (Feb. 15, EF0)) 21:17–21:21 0.37 mi (0.60 km) 60 yd (55 m) A tiled roof, fences, and trees were damaged by this brief tornado.[101]
EF2 S of Damascus to E of Iveys Mill Early, Baker GA 31°16′52″N 84°43′16″W / 31.281°N 84.7211°W / 31.281; -84.7211 (Damascus (Feb. 15, EF2)) 21:38–21:48 11.60 mi (18.67 km) 600 yd (550 m) This strong tornado first touched down just west of SR 45, where it snapped several trees and damaged the roofs of some homes. Farther northeast, the tornado reached its peak intensity as it completely destroyed two small and unanchored homes just south of Damascus, one made of concrete blocks, and the other made of wood with a concrete block foundation. Only scattered debris and foundations remained of these structures, and a nearby detached garage was also completely destroyed. A truck was tossed from the garage, with other cars being heavily damaged. Five injuries occurred at these homes. A third home sustained damage to its exterior and was shifted off its foundation. Trees were also snapped or uprooted, with two cases of metal poles being lodged into trees. A propane tank was dislodged and moved, and power lines were downed as well. Farther northeast, the tornado weakened as it snapped and uprooted more trees. Some minor roofing damage occurred before the tornado lifted.[102][103]
EF3 N of Sunset Beach to SW of Delco Brunswick NC 33°54′42″N 78°30′35″W / 33.9118°N 78.5096°W / 33.9118; -78.5096 (Sunset Beach (Feb. 15, EF3)) 04:34–04:56 22 mi (35 km) 275 yd (251 m) 3 deaths – The tornado touched down at the north edge of Sunset Beach, damaging numerous pine trees and limbs at EF0 intensity as it crossed NC 179, before rapidly intensifying to EF2 strength as it neared NC 904. As the tornado crossed the road, a large metal building was destroyed and a number of RVs were overturned. Still rapidly strengthening, the tornado entered Grissettown and struck the Ocean Ridge Plantation subdivision at its peak intensity of high-end EF3. Three homes were leveled at this location, one of which was swept completely away. This home was well-constructed, but built on a block foundation, and vehicles parked at the site were moved only short distances. Dozens of other nearby homes were damaged, some of which sustained loss of roofs and exterior walls. Many large trees were snapped and denuded in the subdivision, and a car was overturned. All three fatalities occurred in the Ocean Ridge Plantation subdivision. The tornado then abruptly weakened, but reached its maximum width as it crossed U.S. 17 between Grissettown and Cool Run as it exited Ocean Ridge Plantation at EF1 strength, rolling a double-wide mobile home on the north side of the highway. As the tornado continued northeast, it reintensifed back to EF2 strength, causing major damage to several homes and snapping hundreds of trees. It then inflicted a continuous path of tree damage through forest and swamp land, crossing NC 130 and NC 211. The tornado finally lifted east of NC 211.[104][105][106][107]

Mexico[edit]

The winter storm strained the power grids in northern Mexico, leading to cascading blackouts for 4.7 million homes and businesses in Mexico.[2]

Temperatures as low as −18 °C (0 °F) were recorded, as shortages of natural gas led to blackouts in Nuevo León, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Chihuahua along the border with Texas.[108] Over a dozen people died in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; Río Bravo and Matamoros, Tamaulipas; and Monterrey, Nuevo León; due to the winter storm.[5] President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) said on February 17 that Mexico would increase the use of oil and coal to produce electricity, as well as purchase three shiploads of natural gas to deal with power shortages. He also warned that periodic local outages would continue through February 21.[109] Local authorities mentioned that no hospitals had been left without electricity at any time.[110]

Canada[edit]

In Ontario, snowfall warnings were issued in advance of the winter storm. Buses were cancelled across the Greater Toronto Area, and schools were completely closed in Halton and Durham.[111] 20 cm (7.9 in) of snow fell in Windsor, 12 cm (4.7 in) at Toronto Pearson International Airport and 18 cm (7.1 in) fell in Ottawa. The highest totals in the region were the over 30 cm (12 in) in and Hamilton and Niagara Region.[112]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ All dates are based on the local time zone where the tornado touched down; however, all times are in Coordinated Universal Time for consistency.

References[edit]

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