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Winter storm blasts across the heartland

The system closes roads, shuts airports and causes power outages as it drops snow and ice from Texas to Illinois. Next in its sights: the Northeast.

February 02, 2011|By Bob Drogin and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Snow batters rush-hour traffic in Chicago, where a warning was issued about high waves and icy sprays from Lake Michigan.
Snow batters rush-hour traffic in Chicago, where a warning was issued about… (John Gress, Reuters )

Reporting from Washington and Miami, Okla. — A ferocious winter storm pounded the nation's heartland with howling winds and up to 2 feet of snow Tuesday, crippling airports, closing interstate highways and schools, and disrupting life in ice-glazed areas from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and from Colorado to Maine.

More than a third of the nation shivered, with some states lashed by freezing rain. What one official called a "once in a lifetime" storm promised to dump an avalanche of more snow and sleet on the winter-weary region Wednesday.

Gale-force winds created blinding whiteouts in parts of Oklahoma, Texas and Ohio. Cars and trucks were abandoned in towering snowdrifts, and thick ice brought down trees and power lines in scores of communities. Major outages were reported in Texas, Ohio and elsewhere.

Even seasoned winter veterans took cover. John Doyle, 49, a truck driver from Chicago, spent Tuesday afternoon biding his time and watching the weather reports at a Holiday Inn Express in Miami, Okla.

"I went out to my truck about 4:30 this morning, and just turned around and came back in," he said.

Nearly 6,000 flights were canceled in cities including Chicago, Boston, New York and Des Moines, causing delays and disruptions in air service. At Los Angeles International Airport, 105 arriving or departing flights were scrubbed. Several thousand more cancellations were expected nationwide Wednesday.

Among the airports forced to close temporarily was Dallas-Fort Worth, the destination for football fans hoping to attend Sunday's Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers in nearby Arlington, Texas. Officials said snow had never closed the airport before. With ice coating its streets, Dallas looked poised to host an ice bowl.

In Chicago, the National Weather Service warned that high winds could churn waves up to 25 feet on Lake Michigan, leading to coastal flooding and freezing spray, particularly along busy Lake Shore Drive. By evening, officials had closed the road. With up to 20 inches of snow forecast for Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for the first time since 1999.

The Chicago Fire Department rented nearly 50 snowmobiles to ensure that paramedics could reach snowbound residents.

Farther west, the Iowa Department of Transportation said most roads in the state were partially or completely covered with ice and snow. Parts of Interstate 80 were closed.

Deadly wrecks were reported in Minnesota and Kansas, according to the Associated Press.

"If you don't have to travel, don't do it. If you can stay home, do it," Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback told reporters before heading to the state's emergency operations center. "You might get in. You won't get back."

Missouri transportation officials closed Interstate 70 along its entire length from Kansas City to St. Louis amid heavy snow and whiteout conditions.

New York City posted a winter storm warning, with forecasters predicting a mix of snow, sleet and ice. In Washington, non-emergency federal employees were allowed to work from home or take unscheduled leave because roads were icy.

Blizzard warnings were issued in seven states, and storm alerts or freezing-rain advisories were posted in a dozen more. At least 28 states were affected. Governors in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois declared states of emergency.

The weather was miserable even in areas where it didn't snow. Denver was bathed in sunshine, but with highs of about 0 degrees, most public schools were closed, and authorities advised people to stay off the streets to avoid the potentially lethal cold.

The storm slammed first into Texas and Oklahoma after emerging from the Rockies. Whiteouts paralyzed Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where a snow-covered roof partially collapsed at the Hard Rock Casino. No injuries were reported.

The daily newspaper Tulsa World announced it would not publish a print edition Wednesday for the first time since its founding in 1905, citing snow-clogged roads.

"The biggest reason we're not printing, frankly, is we couldn't get it to our customers," said Joe Worley, the executive editor. The paper would post a 12-page electronic edition and updates on its website, he said.

Major swaths of the state's road and turnpike system were closed, and the Oklahoma National Guard was mobilized to help motorists stranded on the Will Rogers Turnpike.

Jack Damrill, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, called the storm a "once in a lifetime" event. Snowdrifts up to 6 feet high blocked some roads, he said, leaving so many motorists and highway patrol officers stranded that snowplows couldn't get through.

Crews started clearing roads as soon as the snow began falling Monday night, said Brenda Perry, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. "We expect to be working around the clock for several days with this storm," she said.

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