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News
Unprecedented weather conditions strain electric market
  • Updated

Due to a perfect storm of extreme cold from Mexico to Canada, as well as limited wind generation and the need for natural gas to supplement fuel for electrical generation, Hastings Utilities is asking residents to take specific steps to conserve energy amid subzero temperatures.

Hastings reached its second-lowest temperature on record Monday with a low of 26 degrees below zero, according to the National Weather Service in Hastings. Meteorologist Ryan Pfannkuch said the record low for Hastings was set on Jan. 12, 1912, with a bitter -30 degrees.

Monday’s low marked the coldest daily temperature for Feb. 15 in Hastings since 1909, when the temperature was minus-12. The previous record all-time low temperature for the month of February was -22 degrees on Feb. 1, 1917.

Pfannkuch said Sunday and Monday marked the first time Hastings has seen high temperatures fail to reach zero since December 1990. As of 4 p.m. Monday, the high for the day had reached only -8 degrees.

The amount of recent snowfall also was significant. Pfannkuch said Hastings received 24.9 inches of snow over the previous three-week period.

“The last time we had that much snow in three weeks was December 2009 when we had 29.1 inches,” he said. “That included the Christmas blizzard of 2009. About half of it was from that storm alone.”

The city of Hastings stated in a news release that customers are using more electricity and natural gas because of the cold, and wind turbines in the region haven’t been producing as much energy over the past several days.

Hastings is part of the Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization based in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is a not-for-profit corporation mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure and competitive wholesale electricity prices on behalf of its members.

All available power-generating units are running at full capacity for the Utilities Department, but the strain on the overall SPP market — not Hastings Utilities’ generating capacity or capability — is causing the potential for shortages across the region, which spans from north Texas all the way into Canada.

The degree to which Hastings’ power-generating units operate is based on market need and SPP decisions.

Utility Manager Kevin Johnson wrote in an emailed response to questions that Hastings’ subject matter experts within the utility and engineering departments are involved with ongoing energy market participant communications, planning and strategy development to an ever-changing SPP electric market.

“I can assure you that we’re effectively managing through this current, unprecedented situation,” he said.

While weather conditions have created an unprecedented market situation, Johnson said, Hastings’ power-generating units running at full capacity isn’t unusual.

There are many times throughout the year, during high electric demand time frames — predominately summer and winter — when both of the city’s coal-fired Whelan Energy Center units have been called up to full capacity.

To help ease demand, the Utilities Department is asking customers to reduce their energy consumption. Suggestions include the following:

  • Turn off lights when you leave the room or aren’t using them.
  • Turn off and unplug non-essential TVs, appliances, computers, and printers.
  • Dry items in your dishwasher simply by opening the door and not using a “high temperature” option.
  • Use smaller appliances such as the microwave or toaster instead of the oven.
  • Take short showers instead of baths.
  • Open curtains and shades during the day on sunny sides of homes to let sunlight in.
  • Close curtains and shades at night to provide extra insulation.

The National Weather Service’s Hastings office also advised residents to take precautions against the cold weather.

NWS suggests keeping an emergency supply kit for both home and vehicle, dressing in layers and covering exposed skin in extreme cold, and taking regular breaks to warm up if working out in the elements. Pets should be brought inside.

Due to the extreme cold, avoid being exposed to the elements more than necessary to prevent hypothermia or frostbite.

Symptoms of hypothermia can include shivering, cold hands and feet, poor coordination, numbness, loss of dexterity, mental sluggishness and pain from cold.

Frostbite can happen in minutes. Signs of frostbite include a discolored appearance of skin and loss of feeling.


Health
AP
Officials: 2 dead in Texas as subfreezing cold sweeps US
Officials say a frigid blast of winter weather across the U.S. is likely to blame for the deaths of two people in Texas
  • Updated

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A sprawling blast of winter weather across the U.S. is likely to blame for the deaths of two people in Texas, where an unusually snowy emergency Monday knocked out power for more than four million people, shut down grocery stores and air travel and closed schools ahead of frigid days still to come.

As nightfall threatened to plummet temperatures again into single digits, officials warned that homes still without power would likely not have heat until at least Tuesday, as frustration mounted and the state's electric grid came under growing demand and criticism.

“Things will likely get worse before they get better," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in the county of nearly 5 million people around Houston.

Law enforcement reported two men were found dead along Houston-area roadways. Causes of death were pending, but officials said the subfreezing temperatures were likely to blame.

The toll of the worsening conditions included the delivery of new COVID-19 vaccine shipments, which were expected to be delayed until at least midweek. Massive power outages across Houston included a facility storing 8,000 doses of Moderna vaccine, leaving health officials scrambling to find takers at the same time authorities were pleading for people to stay home.

Temperatures nosedived into the single-digits as far south as San Antonio, and homes that had already been without electricity for hours had no certainty about when the lights and heat would come back on, as the state's overwhelmed power grid began imposing blackouts that are typically only seen in 100-degree Fahrenheit (38-degree Celsius) summers.

The storm was part of a massive system that brought snow, sleet and freezing rain to the southern Plains and was spreading across the Ohio Valley and to the Northeast. The Southwest Power Pool, a group of utilities across 14 states, called for rolling outages because the supply of reserve energy had been exhausted. Some utilities said they were starting blackouts, while others urged customers to reduce power usage.

“We're living through a really historic event going on right now,” said Jason Furtado, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, pointing to all of Texas under a winter storm warning and the extent of the freezing temperatures.

State officials said surging demand, driven by people trying to keep their homes warm, and cold weather knocking some power stations offline had pushed Texas' system beyond the limits.

“This weather event, it's really unprecedented. We all living here know that," said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. He defended preparations made by grid operators and described the demand on the system as record-setting.

“This event was well beyond the design parameters for a typical, or even an extreme, Texas winter that you would normally plan for. And so that is really the result that we're seeing," Woodfin said.

More than 500 people were hunkering down at one shelter in Houston, but Mayor Sylvester Turner said other warming centers had to be shut down because those locations, too, lost power.

The largest grocery store chain in Texas, H-E-B, closed locations around Austin and San Antonio, cities that are unaccustomed to snow and have few resources to clear roads. The slow thaw and more frigid lows ahead was also taking a toll on Texas' distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

State health officials said Texas, which was due to receive more than 400,000 additional vaccine doses this week, now does not expect deliveries to occur until at least Wednesday.

The weather also put existing vaccine supply in jeopardy. Rice University on Monday abruptly began offering vaccines on its closed Houston campus after Harris Health System told the school it had about 1,000 vaccines that “were going to go to waste," said Doug Miller, a university spokesman.

“The window was just a couple hours. They have to take care of it quickly,” Miller said.

Harris County officials said a facility storing the vaccines had lost power Monday and that a backup generator also failed. Hidalgo said she did not believe any vaccines were lost.

Caught without enough groceries on hand, Lauren Schneider, a 24-year-old lab technician, walked to a Dallas grocery store near her home Monday morning dressed in a coat, hat and face mask. Schneider said she didn’t feel comfortable driving with the roads covered in snow and ice. She said she hadn’t seen a serious snowfall in Dallas since her childhood.

“I really didn’t think it’s would be this serious,” Schneider said.

Teresa and Luke Fassetta, trundling through the snow carrying grocery bags, said the store lost power while they were shopping. The couple said they lost power overnight, then got it back around 9 a.m., and they were hoping it would still be on when they arrived home. If not, Teresa said, “we just have a bunch of blankets and candles and two cats to keep us warm.”

Several cities in the U.S. saw record lows as Arctic air remained over the central part of the country. In Minnesota, the Hibbing/Chisholm weather station registered minus 38 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 39 degrees Celsius), while Sioux Falls, South Dakota, dropped to minus 26 Fahrenheit (minus 26 degrees Celsius).

In Kansas, where wind chills dropped to as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 34 degrees Celsius) in some areas, Gov. Laura Kelly declared a state of disaster.

Most government offices and schools were closed for Presidents Day, and authorities pleaded with residents to stay home. Louisiana State Police reported that it had investigated nearly 75 weather-related crashes caused by a mixture of snow, sleet and freezing rain in the past 24 hours.

“We already have some accidents on our roadways,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said during a morning news conference. “It is slick and it is dangerous.”

Air travel was also affected. By midmorning, 3,000 flights had been canceled across the country, about 1,600 of them at Dallas/Fort Worth International and Bush Intercontinental airports in Texas. At DFW, the temperature was 4 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius) — 3 degrees (-16 degrees) colder than Moscow.

In Houston, officials said Bush Intercontinental Airport runways would remain closed until at least 1 p.m. Tuesday, a day longer than previously expected.

The storm arrived over a three-day holiday weekend that has seen the most U.S. air travel since the period around New Year’s. More than 1 million people went through airport security checkpoints on Thursday and Friday. However, that was still less than half the traffic of a year ago, before the pandemic hit with full force.

The southern Plains had been gearing up for the winter weather for the better part of the weekend. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for all of the state’s 254 counties. Abbott, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson each activated National Guard units to assist state agencies with tasks including rescuing stranded drivers.

President Joe Biden also declared an emergency in Texas in a statement Sunday night. The declaration is intended to add federal aid to state and local response efforts.


Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press journalists David Koenig in Dallas, Juan A. Lozano in Houston, Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Ky., Kate Brumback in Atlanta, Margaret Stafford in Liberty, Mo., and Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed to this report.


Opinion
Andy Raun: Frigid weather invitation to count our blessings
  • Updated

At 5:26 a.m. Monday, the Hastings office of the National Weather Service issued a bulletin announcing its coverage area in central Nebraska and northern Kansas could expect the coldest air temperatures “since at least 1989” on Monday and Tuesday mornings.

For me, the “since 1989” part of that statement sent me back in time to my freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, when arctic air in the days leading up to Christmas made finishing the fall semester and traveling home for the holiday break an unforgettable adventure.

Christmas Day 32 years ago was on a Monday, and the last day of finals week was Friday, Dec. 22 — by coincidence, my mother’s 60th birthday. Unluckily, I had exams scheduled all the way to week’s end.

That Friday morning, the low temperature in Lincoln was 22 degrees below zero. Here in Hastings, the low was minus-26, with wind chills much colder. (We matched that -26 mark for air temperature Monday at the Hastings Municipal Airport. Southeast of Fairfield, the wind chill factor at 6:57 a.m. Friday was minus-54, NWS reported.)

All of that long-ago finals week, I had been trying to put my best study skills to use. After all, I had never been through finals week before, and I was anxious to put my best foot forward.

Meanwhile, I was increasingly anxious about how I was going to cover the 135 miles home to the farm south of Norman at the end of the week. Would my car even start when the time came? I was new not only to college studies, but also to day-to-day responsibilities such as keeping my clothes clean, eating decently, and keeping my car road-worthy.

All that week, I had been spending hours a day taking tests and then getting ready for the next ones at Love Library, the Nebraska Student Union, and anyplace else I could spread out my books and find some peace and quiet. (When you live in a fraternity house, finals week starts out somber and studious and then gets progressively less-so as more and more of your brothers finish their work.)

For at least three or four days before that Friday, I was also walking the block-and-a-half north to the student lot where my car was parked every four to six hours day and night, starting the engine and then just sitting inside for 10-15 minutes or more, revving the engine and letting it run.

When I finished my last exam early that Friday afternoon (it was Physical Geography 150, as I recall), I packed quickly and was ready to hit the road so I could be back in God’s Country before nightfall. As it turns out, I was one of the fortunate few whose vehicles actually started that day without a boost. I learned later that some friends never did get their cars started and had to find another way home.

Several students from Minden had talked ahead of time, and we drove west on Interstate 80 in caravan so if anyone had car trouble, he or she could get help without having to walk. (Those were the days before cellphones.) We would all pull off every few exits and wait for the rest to arrive so we knew we weren’t leaving anyone behind.

The weather was beguilingly bright and clear that day, but the air temperatures could have been deadly for a stranded motorist. The high that day in Hastings was 5 degrees below zero.

Arriving home from college for Christmas break was always sweet, and it was especially meaningful for me that December. Just like this year, rough weather makes you especially aware of the simple blessings in life we often take for granted: a car that runs faithfully; a good stocking cap; home-cooked meals; and your own warm bed, under the same roof as the people you love.

Over this last, coronavirus-infested year, we’ve all learned to count our blessings more often and more carefully than before. Today would be a good time to do so again.

Thanks to all the road and street crews, utility workers, mail and newspaper carriers, grocery store workers and others who are helping us carry on through this cold, snowy February siege.

Let’s pray for all those suffering in any way because of the weather or the current public health situation.

Finally, let’s remember to keep an eye out for one another, help each other when and where we can, and make sure we all arrive together in the warmer, safer days that are sure to come soon.

Be safe, and be well.

Andy Raun is editor and news director at the Hastings Tribune. Contact him at 402-303-1419 or araun@hastingstribune.com.


Politics
AP
Pelosi says independent commission will examine Capitol riot
A day after former President Donald Trump won his second Senate impeachment trial, bipartisan support appeared to be growing for an independent Sept. 11-style commission into the deadly insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday that Congress will establish an independent, Sept. 11-style commission to look into the deadly insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol.

Pelosi said the commission will “investigate and report on the facts and causes relating to the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex … and relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power.”

In a letter to Democratic colleagues, Pelosi said the House will also put forth supplemental spending to boost security at the Capitol.

After former President Donald Trump’s acquittal at his second Senate impeachment trial, bipartisan support appeared to be growing for an independent commission to examine the deadly insurrection.

Investigations into the riot were already planned, with Senate hearings scheduled later this month in the Senate Rules Committee. Pelosi, D-Calif., asked retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré to lead an immediate review of the Capitol’s security process.

In her letter Monday, Pelosi said, “It is clear from his findings and from the impeachment trial that we must get to the truth of how this happened.”

She added, “As we prepare for the Commission, it is also clear from General Honoré’s interim reporting that we must put forth a supplemental appropriation to provide for the safety of Members and the security of the Capitol.”

Lawmakers from both parties, speaking on Sunday’s news shows, signaled that even more inquiries were likely. The Senate verdict Saturday, with its 57-43 majority falling 10 votes short of the two-thirds needed to convict Trump, hardly put to rest the debate about the Republican former president’s culpability for the Jan. 6 assault.

“There should be a complete investigation about what happened,” said Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump. “What was known, who knew it and when they knew, all that, because that builds the basis so this never happens again.”

Cassidy said he was “attempting to hold President Trump accountable,” and added that as Americans hear all the facts, “more folks will move to where I was.” He was censured by his state’s party after the vote.

An independent commission along the lines of the one that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks would probably require legislation to create. That would elevate the investigation a step higher, offering a definitive government-backed accounting of events. Still, such a panel would pose risks of sharpening partisan divisions or overshadowing President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

“There’s still more evidence that the American people need and deserve to hear and a 9/11 commission is a way to make sure that we secure the Capitol going forward,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a Biden ally. “And that we lay bare the record of just how responsible and how abjectly violating of his constitutional oath President Trump really was.”

House prosecutors who argued for Trump’s conviction of inciting the riot said Sunday they had proved their case. They also railed against the Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and others who they said were “trying to have it both ways” in finding the former president not guilty but criticizing him at the same time.

A close Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., voted for acquittal but acknowledged that Trump had some culpability for the siege at the Capitol that killed five people, including a police officer, and disrupted lawmakers’ certification of Biden’s White House victory. Graham said he looked forward to campaigning with Trump in the 2022 election, when Republicans hope to regain the congressional majority.

“His behavior after the election was over the top,” Graham said. “We need a 9/11 commission to find out what happened and make sure it never happens again.”

The Senate acquitted Trump of a charge of “incitement of insurrection” after House prosecutors laid out a case that he was an “inciter in chief” who unleashed a mob by stoking a monthslong campaign of spreading debunked conspiracy theories and false violent rhetoric that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Trump’s lawyers countered that Trump’s words were not intended to incite the violence and that impeachment was nothing but a “witch hunt” designed to prevent him from serving in office again.

The conviction tally was the most bipartisan in American history but left Trump to declare victory and signal a political revival while a bitterly divided GOP bickered over its direction and his place in the party.

The Republicans who joined Cassidy in voting to convict were Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

“It’s frustrating, but the founders knew what they were doing and so we live with the system that we have,” Democratic Del. Stacey Plaskett, a House prosecutor who represents the Virgin Islands, said of the verdict, describing it as “heartbreaking.” She added: “But, listen, we didn’t need more witnesses. We needed more senators with spines.”

McConnell told Republican senators shortly before the vote that he would vote to acquit Trump. In a blistering speech after the vote, the Kentucky Republican said the president was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day” but that the Senate’s hands were tied to do anything about it because Trump was out of office. The Senate, in an earlier vote, had deemed the trial constitutional.

“It was powerful to hear the 57 guilties and then it was puzzling to hear and see Mitch McConnell stand and say ‘not guilty’ and then, minutes later, stand again and say he was guilty of everything,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa. “History will remember that statement of speaking out of two sides of his mouth,” she said.

Dean also backed the idea of an impartial investigative commission “not guided by politics but filled with people who would stand up to the courage of their conviction.”

Cassidy and Dean spoke on ABC’s “This Week,” Graham appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” and Plaskett appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union.”


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