Winter Storm Blamed for 15 Deaths
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Commuters battled ice-glazed roads and heavy snow
Thursday after the year's first real blast of winter weather swept across the
Plains and Great Lakes. At least 15 deaths have been blamed on the slick roads
and freezing temperatures.
Heavy snow and freezing rain stranded airline passengers, shut down schools and left thousands without electricity across the Midwest on Thursday. The Michigan Legislature called off its session after forecasters warned freezing rain would continue into evening.
About 270,000 customers were without power in the Kansas City area, 200,000 lost power in Oklahoma, and at least 63,000 others were without power in Michigan and Indiana.
"That makes this easily the worst storm we have ever experienced," said Kansas City Power and Light spokesman Tom Robinson. "We need our customers to be prepared that this could last several days."
The storm had dumped 17 inches of snow on O'Hare International Airport in Chicago by early Thursday, causing some cancellations and delays. Northwest Airlines and United canceled all Wednesday flights in and out of Kansas City International Airport; Delta scrubbed some flights, and more delays were expected Thursday.
The blustery weather interrupted an unseasonably warm winter, with several states reaching record highs just days earlier.
"Winter is back," said Dennis Burkheimer of the Iowa Department of Transportation. "Put away the golf clubs."
The National Weather Service said the storm system, centered over the Mississippi Valley, would move northeast through the day and night pushing more snow, sleet and freezing rain into New York.
Missouri Gov. Bob Holden declared a state of emergency for the west-central and northern parts of the state, giving the areas access to state funds. Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes also declared a state of emergency; city officials estimated they had spent $1 million already on the storm.
Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating declared disasters in 27 counties, allowing state funds to be used for aid.
"I urge anyone in areas hit by this ice and sleet storm to stay off the roads if possible," Keating said.
Oklahoma officials said entire cities were without power, as heavy ice toppled trees and downed power lines. Shelters were set up for those without heat. In Perry, decades-old elm and pecan trees snapped under the coating of ice and littered the streets.
"All you could do was hear these trees snap and crack. Some of them sounded like shotguns," said resident Blanche Hunt.
Hundreds of schools were closed Thursday in Oklahoma, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska and New York.
Parts of Iowa had up to 13 inches of snow by early Thursday, with up to 8 more inches forecast in parts of the state. More than a foot of snow fell across New Mexico's high country.
Kansas Gov. Bill Graves closed state offices, and the Legislature canceled meetings, the first time weather kept state lawmakers home in nearly four years. Graves said state buildings would open late Thursday, and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson also told state workers to report late for work.
In Indiana, an ice storm knocked down trees and power lines.
"When it was dark you could see blue flashes around my neighborhood ... line breakers or transformers exploding," said Dave Miller, mayor of Elkhart, Ind. "It almost looked like blue lightening."
Branches crashing through power lines created a 10-fold risk of fires in Kansas City, Fire Chief Smokey Dyer said.
The National Weather Service also issued a flood watch for southeast Missouri, where forecasters worried that steady rains on top of saturated soil would create flooding.
At least 14 people died in traffic accidents that were blamed on the weather, including three people in Nebraska, three in Oklahoma, three in Illinois, two in Kansas, two in Iowa and one in Missouri.
In California, an elderly woman who wandered from a nursing home was found dead of apparent exposure as a rare dusting of snow arrived in Malibu and other low-lying areas of Southern California.
While drivers and air travelers had complaints, others enjoyed winter's arrival.
Georgia Batchos, of the Chicago suburb of Monee, said she plowed her driveway twice but found the snow delightful.
"It's beautiful. I was admiring everything falling down and settling on the branches," she said.