Ice Shuts Down Waterways As Storms Pummel Country

The icy arctic temperatures that swept downward into the country’s midsection beginning February 8 were followed February 15 by more blasts of cold, this time accompanied by winter storms. A polar vortex swept south into the American Midwest in the third week of February, reaching deep into Texas and spreading east and west to cover most of the continent’s center to the Rio Grande River and below.Another set of winter storms beginning February. 17 were forecast to affect 100 million people as they moved from the central plains eastward, with Southern states getting 2 more inches of snow. According to the National Weather Service, the winter weather was set to continue through February 20 as it forecast a “major winter storm to impact Southern plains/lower Mississippi valley to the mid-Atlantic/northeast.”

Winter weather advisories covered about 154 million people. Oklahoma and Texas, states unused to this level of cold, suffered rolling power outages as wind turbines froze, and the power grid was overwhelmed. Officials in surrounding states asked people to conserve energy. Power outages numbered in the tens of thousands in states including Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio and Oregon, according to, a utility tracking site.

In its American Currents emailed newsletter, American Commercial Barge Line warned, “Abnormal winter storm conditions including snow and ice and sustained below-freezing [temperatures] have driven extensive delays and closures to the majority of fleet and stevedoring operations from Houston to New Orleans since early morning February 15.”

On the Illinois River, the Corps of Engineers implemented width restrictions at Lagrange, Peoria, Starved Rock and Marseilles Locks, reducing tow sizes to six barges beginning on February 11.

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On the Missouri River, ice floes were reported as far south as St. Joseph, Mo., the first time ice has affected river flows that far south since 1989, according to the Corps. 

In St. Louis, Mo., the extreme cold, combined with river icing and snow, had shut down all fleet activity in St. Louis harbor by February 15. 

Until the polar vortex hit, the upper rivers had enjoyed a relatively mild winter. The first measurements of ice taken at Lake Pepin February 9 showed a depth of about 17 inches at its deepest point, well below average for the time of year according to Corps of Engineers composite measurement charts. The ice measurements were taken just as the sub-arctic air began hitting the area.