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Ice storm a warmup for snow

Up to 6 inches are expected in Oklahoma, the hardest hit by freezing rain that left 55 dead in nine states.

January 18, 2007|Miguel Bustillo and Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writers

MCALESTER, OKLA. — Five days after a brutal ice storm battered this country town, it still looks like it is under the control of a comic book frost villain.

Half the streets are shrouded in darkness because of downed power lines frozen solid as steel. Gnarled oak trees lay shattered along slick roads after crumpling under the weight of so much frozen rain. Gas stations are crammed with desperate people buying food and fuel for generators. Shelters are full of families waiting to go home.

"I didn't think rain could get this bad," said Jamie Bradford, 28, Wednesday evening as she stood outside her icicle-crusted home, which was lighted only by a small lantern. Her 8-year-old son Trevor stood next to her, holding his Rottweiler puppy, Rocky. "It's really hit us hard. We had people fighting in the store over the last pack of cigarettes."

The frozen tableaux in McAlester, pop. 18,000, were among the most dramatic of the powerful ice storm that crippled Oklahoma and Texas and parts of the Midwest this week, closing schools and roads and causing at least 55 deaths in nine states.

Oklahoma was the hardest hit, suffering at least 24 storm-related deaths since Friday. The majority, 15, died in automobile accidents, according to the Oklahoma medical examiner's office. Seven people died of possible hypothermia. One man died when he slipped and hit his head as he was knocking ice off an airplane at Altus Air Force Base, 150 miles southwest of Oklahoma City.

"The thing we're concerned about is those folks without power," said Kevin Rowland, an investigator with the state medical examiner's office. "With so many people without power, there's probably more [dead] to be found."

Some 77,781 customers still had no electricity Wednesday, according to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, a state regulatory agency. That included about 10,000 in McAlester, where Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry stopped Wednesday to see the damage. Henry had also planned a trip to Oklahoma's northeast corner, but he canceled, saying that traveling there was still too treacherous.

"Utility crews are working around the clock" to repair downed power lines, one of the biggest obstacles to restoring normalcy, said Henry's press secretary, Phil Bacharach. "The longer the power is out, with the temperatures being what they are and snow predicted for this weekend, it's certainly a critical issue for a number of Oklahomans, certainly the elderly and their children."

The weekend weather forecast calls for 4 to 6 inches of snow in Oklahoma, adding to a light blanket that the Tulsa area received Wednesday. Temperatures are expected to stay below freezing until the middle of next week.

"We're not going to get much melting before that, so it's going to make things worse when the snow comes through," said National Weather Service meteorologist Ray Sondag.

The story is similar in Missouri and Texas, where freezing rain covered roads as far south as San Antonio, and where the weekend forecast calls for continued icy conditions.

In Missouri, 128,000 people are still without power, according to the state's emergency management agency. In some areas, officials warned that power outages may last seven to 10 more days. Eighty-five shelters were open throughout the state, serving 3,600 people.

The storm contributed to at least nine deaths in Missouri. Seven were traffic-related and two were blamed on carbon monoxide exposure. Late Monday night, President Bush declared parts of Missouri disaster areas; he made a similar designation in Oklahoma.

Snow, ice and freezing rain also paralyzed much of Texas. Hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled at airports in Dallas, Houston and Austin.

Some schools, businesses and government offices across the state were closed for a second straight day. The Alamo, in downtown San Antonio, was closed because of freezing temperatures and rain. Hood County southwest of Dallas got 3 inches of snow.

In Houston, residents unaccustomed to driving on icy roads were involved in multiple accidents, including a 10-car pileup. A Houston city employee was killed early Wednesday when he was hit by a car and knocked over a guardrail as he and a co-worker tried to help an accident victim. In all, at least six deaths in Texas were attributed to the storms.

In McAlester, 700 utility linemen and 480 tree trimmers arrived to help restore electricity. But the task of cutting through inches of solid ice was a struggle, and many customers remained without power.

They included Jodie Barrack, 44, the owner of a local dance studio, and her ailing 84-year-old mother, Mary, who had lost power to her life support equipment for days before the family found a generator to buy.

"This has been horrible," Barrack, a former San Diego resident, said as she purchased groceries at an EZ Mart that had only recently been restocked with food and gas. "Mom couldn't do her breathing treatments and couldn't get oxygen. And they say it may be weeks before they can turn her power on.

"But we're lucky. Some people have it even worse."

*

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

lianne.hart@latimes.com

Bustillo reported from McAlester, and Hart from Houston.

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