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Storm Spreads Death, Snarls Midwest Traffic

December 16, 1987|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Bad weather ripped into the nation's midsection with a vengeance Tuesday as the first major storm of the season left a trail of death and confusion, paralyzing air and ground traffic with record snows and gale-force winds.

The storm, which cut a wide swath from the Mexican border to the Great Lakes, was blamed for numerous deaths, including six in West Memphis, Ark., caused by a tornado that flattened 100 homes and an apartment complex late Monday, causing millions of dollars in damage.

Farther north, the Chicago area was socked with a dizzying array of almost every winter weather headache imaginable: drifting snow, freezing rain, sleet, slush, ice, high winds, and downed power and telephone lines.

Up to 16 inches of snow fell on some western Chicago suburbs and authorities said at least 18 people in the metropolitan area had died from storm-related problems, including many who suffered heart attacks while shoveling snow. Meanwhile, more than 165,000 homes were without electricity for several hours. Flights were delayed across the country as swirling snows and winds howling up to 75 m.p.h. effectively ground operations to a halt at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the world's busiest airport and a key transfer center for many carriers.

High winds forced the temporary evacuation of the airport's control tower while heavy snowdrifts forced a shutdown for more than four hours, the first time the airport had been closed by bad weather in nearly three years.

Many Flights Canceled

Even though snow crews managed to reopen some of the airport's seven runways by mid-afternoon, it did not do harried air travelers much good. United and American airlines, which together account for more than 70% of O'Hare's air traffic, had already scrubbed most of their flights in and out of Chicago for the day.

United spokesman Joe Hopkins said the airline was unable to divert flights headed to O'Hare to nearby cities. Air facilities at St. Louis; Kansas City; Des Moines; Moline, Ill.; Peoria, Ill.; Milwaukee, and Madison, Wis., all experienced at least temporary shutdowns, Hopkins said.

Joanne Sloane, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman in Washington, blamed weather problems at O'Hare and other Midwest airports for ground delays averaging up to an hour at airports from Pittsburgh, Pa., through the entire northeastern corridor from Washington to Boston.

In Indiana, winds of up to 69 m.p.h. overturned nine semi-trailers on Interstate 65.

Huge Amounts of Snow

The storm roared out of the Southwest into the Great Plains after dumping huge amounts of snow on many cities Monday. It socked El Paso, Tex., with 22 inches, more in a day than had ever fallen in an entire season in that border city. Kansas City was hit with an 11-inch snowfall, a record for the month of December.

Travelers were stranded throughout the Midwest as road crews struggled to cope with swirling snow and ice. Few were spared at least some aggravation.

From Missouri to the Great Lakes, schools, businesses, roads and government offices closed. All roads were reported closed in McHenry County, near Chicago.

Ed Ferguson of Kansas City rolled into work about five hours late after digging through four-foot-high snowdrifts clogging his driveway. "I've worked since 6 o'clock this morning getting dug out," said Ferguson, deputy director of the National Weather Service's Severe Storm Center in Kansas City.

Although the storm hit a week before the official start of winter, Lyle Alexander, a spokesman for that facility, said the weather system was late in coming for the first major storm of the season.

West Memphis Sifts Rubble

In Arkansas, Leon McGoogan, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, estimated damage from the twister that hit West Memphis at $22 million. Authorities said they were still sifting the rubble for casualties but listed the number of known fatalities so far at six and the number of injured at 136.

Gov. Bill Clinton surveyed the damage by helicopter and said he would declare the town, a suburb of 28,000 population across the Mississippi River from Memphis, a disaster area. He also said he would ask President Reagan to follow up with a similar declaration to qualify homeowners and businessmen for federal disaster relief and low-interest loans. National Guard troops were called in to prevent looting.

Authorities in West Texas, which was hit by heavy snows and unseasonably cold temperatures, reported numerous traffic problems but no deaths. "There were better than 250 accidents, not including hundreds of motorists stranded, cars off the road and jackknifed trucks," said Jerry Burgtorf, a Public Safety Department spokesman in Amarillo. "All the roads are open but they're snow-packed and icy. They're extremely hazardous. We're warning people to stay off the roads unless they have snow tires and four-wheel-drive vehicles."

Sheets of Ice Produced

Similar warnings were posted throughout the Midwest as temperatures, which had hovered around the freezing mark throughout much of the day, began plunging into the 20s and below, turning slush into sheets of ice.

Hopkins said the situation could have been far worse if the storm had hit next weekend, when the Christmas rush should begin.

Times researcher Rhona Schwartz in Houston contributed to this story.

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