( CNN ) - Chinese workers and army soldiers were racing to sweep snow-covered highways and unclog railway routes for millions of travelers trapped by cold weather.
More than 67 million people have been affected by the weather and economic losses are expected to reach as much as $3 billion, Chinese officials say.
Blizzards have snapped power lines and destroyed houses and farmland, prompting fears of food and energy shortages. Twenty-four people have died and some 827,000 people have been evacuated in 14 different provinces, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said Monday.
In the past week, the snowstorms have hit the provinces in central, eastern and southern China -- places that are used to mild winters, not extreme wintry blasts.
"We've never seen such a cold weather lasting for such long a time," said Tang Shan, a man in his 70s in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. "The last time we had one here was over 50 years ago, and not this bad."
The snow and sleet have paralyzed roads, railways and airports, leaving tens of millions of travelers marooned, officials say. Many of them are bound for home ahead of the traditional Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, which falls on February 7.
For several days before and after that day, an estimated 178 million Chinese will travel by train, and 22 million more by plane, officials say. Millions more will take long-haul vans and buses.
The Lunar New Year travel is China's busiest travel period of the year. But the cold snap is hampering travel plans. Railway and highway routes have been brought to a standstill, several regional airports have been closed and many provinces have imposed power "brownouts" to conserve energy.
On Hunan's major highways, more than 60,000 bus riders were stranded because of icy roads.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, as many as 500,000 train passengers were stranded the past few days when a power failure in neighboring Hunan province crippled the regular train services, local officials said. About 100,000 passengers packed the square in front of the train station while others found shelter in schools and other public buildings while waiting for their trains.
Even the local stock market seems affected by the nasty weather. The Shanghai composite index dropped by more than 7 percent on Monday, dragged in part by investors' concerns over the damage caused by the foul winter weather. Worst hit were transport and power stocks.
Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has ordered urgent measures to unclog the transport jam and ensure a steady supply of food and energy.
"Let us mobilize urgently and work as one to wage this tough battle against the disaster," he said in an emergency meeting. "Let's ensure that the people enjoy a joyful and auspicious Spring Festival."
But more miserable weather is expected. China's weather bureau Monday issued a rare "red alert," warning of more severe snowstorms in the coming days. If so, the number of stranded travelers will surely swell.
Tang Shan, the retired official in Hunan, is staying put instead of joining the holiday exodus. Even so, he finds the frigid weather a big nuisance.
"Hospitals now treat children who caught colds and old people who sprained bones after slipping and falling," he says. "Even just walking in the icy street is perilous."