Tampa airport preparing for weather-related flight cancellations ahead of Christmas

Winter storms and cold weather sweeping across the country threatens to derail travel plans for thousands.
Passengers look at a screen to check times for departures and arrivals for their flight at the Tampa International Airport earlier this year. The airport was reporting some flight delays and cancellations Thursday because of a fierce winter storm affecting much of the U.S.
Passengers look at a screen to check times for departures and arrivals for their flight at the Tampa International Airport earlier this year. The airport was reporting some flight delays and cancellations Thursday because of a fierce winter storm affecting much of the U.S. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 22, 2022|Updated Dec. 22, 2022

As a powerful winter storm sweeps across the United States — bringing possibly the coldest Christmas to Tampa Bay in nearly 30 years — Tampa International Airport is beginning to see flight cancellations and delays that could derail holiday travel for some Tampa Bay residents and their families.

Spokesperson Emily Nipps said the Tampa airport is anticipating more to come.

“We expect that the storm and flight delays and cancellations elsewhere throughout the U.S. will cause some issues here as well, though we cannot predict how severe it will be over the next couple of days,” Nipps said in an email.

Roughly 2% of the airport’s flights Thursday had been canceled and 17% delayed, Nipps said. According to data from Flight Aware, of 21 canceled flights at the Tampa airport, roughly 80% were going to or from Denver or Chicago — cities currently feeling the impacts of the winter weather sweeping through the Midwest.

A cold front associated with the storm will bring temperatures to the Tampa Bay area that will plunge into the 30s over Christmas weekend, forecasters say. A National Weather Service forecast shows a chance of rain Thursday along Florida’s west coast before temperatures begin to drop heading into the weekend.

Low temperatures in Hillsborough and Pasco counties on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day could dip below freezing, and highs are expected to be in the mid-to-upper 40s.

Forecasters are expecting Pinellas County to stay slightly warmer with low temperatures over the weekend in the upper 30s and highs at nearly 50.

Eight cold weather shelters are opening in Pinellas County on Friday and Saturday nights. With cooler weather expected to continue into Monday, the shelters are considering staying open Sunday night, too.

Hillsborough County will release its cold weather shelter locations on Friday morning, spokesperson Chris Wilkerson said. Wilkerson said county officials anticipate the temperatures will meet the “feels like” 40-degree or below threshold to activate the cold weather shelters on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Pasco County cold weather shelters are available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for those who call 727-842-8605 and choose ext. 2 for cold weather shelters.

The National Weather Service issued a freeze watch for Saturday morning for Hillsborough and Pasco counties. The watch does not currently include Pinellas County.

The winter weather is bringing heavy snow and winds across the Midwest Thursday, impacting travel for thousands across the country, especially in Denver and Chicago. According to Flight Aware, 47% of flights to Chicago Midway Thursday had been canceled by 2 p.m.

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About 500 flights have been canceled at both Denver and Chicago O’Hare airports Thursday, and with likely more weather-related cancelations to come, thousands are still trying to find ways home for the holidays.

“This is not like a snow day when you were a kid,” President Joe Biden warned Thursday in the Oval Office after a briefing from federal officials. “This is serious stuff.”

The frigid air will move through the central United States to the east, with windchill advisories affecting about 135 million people over the coming days, weather service meteorologist Ashton Robinson Cook said Thursday.

Forecasters are expecting a bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm — to develop near the Great Lakes, which will increase winds and create blizzard conditions, Cook said.

Already, roads in rural stretches of western South Dakota were blocked, leaving people stranded with dwindling supplies of food and heating sources.

“It’s just kind of scary for us here, we just kind of feel isolated and left out,” said Shawn Bordeaux, a Democratic state lawmaker, who said he was running out of propane heat at his home near Mission on the Rosebud Indian Reservation because snow drifts made it impossible for a delivery driver to re-supply him.

In Texas, temperatures were expected to quickly plummet Thursday, but state leaders promised there wouldn’t be a repeat of the February 2021 storm that overwhelmed the state’s power grid and was blamed for hundreds of deaths.

The cold weather extended to El Paso and across the border into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where migrants have been camping outside or filling shelters as they await a decision on whether the U.S. will lift restrictions that have prevented many from seeking asylum.

Elsewhere in the U.S., authorities worried about the potential for power failures and warned people to take precautions to protect older and homeless people and livestock — and, if possible, to postpone travel.

Michigan State Police prepared to deploy additional troopers to help motorists. And along Interstate 90 in northern Indiana, crews were braced to clear as much as a foot of snow as meteorologists warned of blizzard conditions there starting Thursday evening. About 150 National Guard members also have been deployed to help snow-bound Indiana travelers.

More than 1,700 flights had been canceled Thursday morning within, in or out of the U.S., according to the tracking site FlightAware, with Chicago O’Hare and Denver airports seeing the most. Freezing rain forced Delta to halt departures from its hub in Seattle.

Amtrak, meanwhile, canceled service on more than 20 routes, primarily in the Midwest. Service between Chicago and Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, and St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, was suspended through Christmas Day.

Some shelters in the Detroit area already were at capacity. The Detroit News reported that the 140 beds at COTS, a family-only shelter in Detroit, were full. The facility is hoping to make room for others, though, spokesperson Aisha Morrell-Ferguson told the newspaper Wednesday.

“We are not sending anyone back into this cold,” Morrell-Ferguson said. “It does not matter if we have to pull out air mattresses. We are doing everything we can, looking at alternative spaces to support the needs that may arise.”

In famously snowy Buffalo, New York, forecasters predicted a “once-in-a-generation storm” because of heavy lake-effect snow, wind gusts as high as 65 mph, whiteouts and the potential for extensive power outages. The NHL postponed the Buffalo Sabres’ home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and rescheduled it for March 4.

Information from the Associated Press supplements this report.