SAN FRANCISCO — A massive storm system is bringing blizzards, tornadoes, freezing rain, high winds, fire danger and heavy snow to much of the nation Saturday and Sunday.
“This storm system is so expansive, literally two-thirds of the country is getting some sort of impact from it,” said Brian Hoeth, an emergency response meteorologist with the National Weather Service at the southern regional operations center in Fort Worth, Texas.
“It’s mid-April and we’ve got snow falling across basically the entire north-central United States,” he said.
Three deaths have been attributed to the storm system. In Louisiana, a toddler was killed when a storm blew a large tree onto her family’s RV around 12:30 a.m. Saturday. The girl was sleeping at the time, the sheriff's office said.
Authorities in Wisconsin said a woman there was killed when her minivan lost control on a slush-covered highway and struck an oncoming SUV. The accident happened shortly before 6 a.m. Saturday and the local sheriff's office said a light freezing rain was falling at the time of the crash.
In Nebraska, Rollo Ward, 61, died at the scene of the crash Friday when the semitrailer he was driving went out of control on the snow-covered roadway and hit another semi previously stranded in the blizzard.
The northern tier states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and New York face heavy snow, strong winds and freezing rain Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
Sleet and freezing rain are expected across the upper Midwest, as cold air filters down from Canada. The weather system spread toward the Great Lakes on Saturday and is expected to reach interior New England on Sunday.
Winter freeze watches are also in place across eastern Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas.
On Saturday, the hardest hit area has been South Dakota into northern Nebraska, which got up to a foot and a half of snow in some areas and experienced blizzard conditions. The blizzard warning extends from Nebraska into South Dakota, Minnesota and northern Iowa, said Hoeth.
Minnesota is under a historic storm warning, with very heavy snow falling at a rate of up to 2 inches per hour.
Winds gusting as high as 45 mph will cause white-out conditions, the National Weather Service said. The warning won’t lift until Sunday morning.
Next, the storm is heading to the Great Lakes area, especially Wisconsin and Michigan.
In New York state, an ice storm warning in in effect near Buffalo until Sunday afternoon, with ice accumulations of up to half an inch expected.
“This could cause power outages and dangerous travel. It only takes about half an inch of ice and 20 mph winds to get power outage concerns due to the weight of the ice on the power lines,” said Hoeth.
On Saturday, a line of severe thunderstorms extended from Tennessee across Mississippi, Alabama and into southeastern Louisiana. These storms brought damaging wind gusts and were causing widespread tree downings and power outages.
The threat will expand into the eastern region Sunday, including Florida, Georgia and into the Carolinas, and parts of Virginia and Maryland, including the Washington, D.C., area, Hoeth said.
The broad line of storms is expected to move east Saturday night and into Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas, the National Weather Service said.
Tornadoes are also a possibility, but high winds are also more hazardous than many realize.
“People take it pretty lightly, but you can get some pretty serious damage with straight-line winds. You might say ‘Oh, it’s not a tornado,' but you can still get serious damage,” Hoeth said.
The storm has already resulted in one death. In Haughton, La., a toddler was killed early Saturday when a tree fell on an RV as she and her family slept inside, according to the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office. Four adults and a 15-month old also in the RV at the time were not injured.
The area had experienced numerous downed trees on homes and in roadways due to high winds, the sheriff’s office said.
Extreme winds associated with the storm have resulted in several large fires in Texas and Oklahoma, where drought conditions have left grasslands and scrub extremely dry.
“The winds behind this cold front are just very strong, we had widespread wind gusts in the Texas Panhandle of up to 60 mph,” said Hoeth.
Beginning Sunday, the critical fire weather threat will move into New Mexico and west Texas.
A wildfire in northwestern Oklahoma burned more than 120,000 acres Thursday and forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes.
Wild temperature swings
“This is the time of year where we get these roller-coaster deals with the temperature,” said Hoeth.
In Fort Worth, it was almost 90 degress on Thursday but the temperature is predicted to fall to 38 degrees Saturday night, a 50 degree swing in a 36-hour period.
Summer-like warmth spread up the East Coast in some areas on Saturday, all the way to New England, where record high temperatures are possible. Philadelphia hit 82 degrees.
However, the sunshine won’t last long. A strong cold front is steadily approaching the Mississippi Valley. Philadelphia's high is expected to fall to 52 degrees on Sunday.
By Monday the main impacts form this system will be wrapping up. Monday morning will see some lingering impacts in the Northeast, with rain and thunderstorms. Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire may have some ice. Ohio and the Great Lakes regions will still have a chance of snow.
“We won’t entirely be out of this until Tuesday as far as most of the country is concerned,” Hoeth said.
Contributing: The Associated Press