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Storm brings freezing rain and snow to millions of Americans

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For millions of Americans today, the national news is right outside their windows, and for some, it's even inside the house. A winter storm hit much of the country's midsection, and we're told that more than 250,000 households lost power, from Texas up to Maine. Earlier, we reached Christopher Blank, news director of WKNO, in one of the hardest-hit spots of the country Memphis, Tenn.

CHRISTOPHER BLANK, BYLINE: I am one of the 135,000 people to lose power, yes.

INSKEEP: In the Memphis area - so I mean, like, is it cold where you are? Do you have heat at least?

BLANK: Well, it's warm here at the radio station.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BLANK: I will say that it's colder elsewhere.

INSKEEP: Well, that's good to know. The equipment inside a radio station does tend to heat things up - all the big production boards and so forth. So what caused such a major outage?

BLANK: Well, the short answer is trees. This is a city of trees. And yesterday afternoon, they became encased in ice, and then some wind came. And at one point, my neighbors and I were just standing outside watching massive limbs crash down one after another. And as a homeowner surrounded by 100-year-old oak trees, I can honestly say that I have never been more afraid of them.

INSKEEP: I imagine so, as you're watching that happen. What do you think made the effect of this storm worse than people might have anticipated?

BLANK: Well, you know, we call ourselves the Mid-South here. You would think that a Midwestern city would be used to something like this. But when ice happens here, we kind of act like it's not supposed to. You may remember that last year's big winter storm caused some major power outages in Texas, but that wasn't the problem here. Here, we didn't have water. And that's because the city's pumping stations froze up, and miles of pipelines burst. And it took more than a week to get fresh drinking water. This year we have water, but no power. So cold weather is basically our kryptonite.

INSKEEP: Does this - as people observe this - suggest a lack of preparation by the utilities?

BLANK: Well, you know, because it only snows or freezes a few times a year around here, normally, things just shut down for a day or two. But two years in a row now - people are starting to wonder if this could be the new normal with climate change. But also, I have to say that there is this user side of public services, especially here in the South. Nobody expects frozen bridges. But because of that, we had a 16-car pileup on one end of town, and on the other, a tractor trailer jackknifed and shut down one of the Mississippi River bridges for a few hours. So it's a big mess.

INSKEEP: So you're camping at the radio station until your power comes back on. Other people are doing whatever they can. How long are the outages expected to last?

BLANK: Well, our public utility, Memphis Light, Gas and Water, warned us yesterday afternoon that this was not going to be a quick fix. There are 50 crews working 16-hour shifts. It could take through Sunday to get the power back. And in the meantime, schools and colleges are closed. A number of flights have been canceled. And even FedEx, which is headquartered here, said that some packages could be delayed.

INSKEEP: Christopher, thanks for the update, and hope you're able to stay warm.

BLANK: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Christopher Blank is the news director and a temporary resident of WKNO in Memphis, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Christopher Bank
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.