Massive Blizzard Blankets US from Oklahoma to New England
Blizzard cuts power to hundreds of thousands
'It was like, insane,' stranded Chicago driver says of motorists stuck in cars overnight
msnbc.com staff and news service reports, Feb. 2,2011
CHICAGO — A colossal blizzard roaring across a third of the country paralyzed the nation's heartland with ice and snow, leaving motorists stranded for hours and shuttering airports and schools as it barreled toward the Northeast.
In Ohio alone, more than 200,000 homes and business were without power. In the Chicago area, some 123,000 utility customers saw their electricity cut overnight. Crews had reduced that to 80,000 by early morning.
In Texas, frigid cold forced the power grid operator to start rolling blackouts of up to an hour to nearly three million homes.
In the Northeast, Boston was looking at possibly 18 inches of snow. Of greater concern was the prospect of freezing rain in places. New York City could see nearly an inch of ice.
The monstrous storm, billed as the worst in decades, delivered knock-out after knock-out as it made its way from Texas to Maine, touching some 30 states and bringing a huge swath of the country to a halt.
Major automakers shut down plants in six Midwestern states as did hundreds of smaller employers.
As part of its "largest sheltering effort" in more than two years, the Red Cross said it had opened more than 70 shelters across the Midwest.
Around 2,430 National Guard troops are providing winter storm support, NBC News reported.
In areas where the storm had passed, a deep freeze set in.
In the Kansas City area, air temperatures in the single-digits and below were translating to wind chill temperatures of 5 below to 15 below zero degrees.
In North Dakota, wind chills were ranging Wednesday from 35 below to 55 below zero, and in Minnesota wind chill temperatures were ranging from 25 below to 35 below zero.
The extreme temperatures were overwhelming services for the poor and homeless in many areas.
"When you combine snow with wicked cold it brings even the toughest people in," said Dennis Chapman, associate executive director of the City Union Mission in Kansas City, which sheltered nearly 400 people Tuesday night.
He said they expect even more Wednesday night and will be putting mattresses on the floor to accommodate the crowd.
Forecasters warned ice accumulations could knock down some tree limbs and power lines across the storm's more than 2,100-mile path. Ice also could affect transit service, even as plow drivers struggled to keep up with the snow on many roads.
In New York, Mike Schumaker was already into his fourth hour of what he predicted would be a 24-hour plowing marathon as he cleared snow from a suburban Albany gas station around 5 a.m. ET Wednesday.
"I figure I'll be going to about 1 or 2 in the morning. That's my guess," said the private contractor from Latham.
"It's not so much about plowing as it is about to where to put it," he said. "We still have snow from Christmas that hasn't melted."
In Chicago, the city shut down Lake Shore Drive for the first time in years, as an untold number of motorists were stranded overnight after multiple car accidents on the iconic roadway.
And it wasn't over yet. Chicago O'Hare reported 20.2 inches of snow by 10:30 a.m. ET, the third highest snowfall total in the city's recorded history after the blizzards of 1967 and 1999. More snow was still possible.
Missouri reopened Interstate 70 from Kansas City to St. Louis on Wednesday after closing it for the first time in history. The state has as much as 1.5 feet of snow.
In the Northeast, spots in northern New York had already gotten more than a foot of snow. New York City was expected to get up to three-quarters of an inch of ice by midday before the mix of sleet and freezing rain warms up to rain.
More than 5,300 flightsw had been canceled Wednesday as of 10 a.m. ET, or more than 16 percent of the day's scheduled traffic, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.com. That came a day after airlines grounded 12,630 flights due to the storm.
The decision by O'Hare-based airlines to cancel all their flights for a day and a half was certain to have ripple effects at other U.S. airports, said transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.
"Effectively shutting down America's most important aviation hub hits the system immeasurably hard," he said about O'Hare. He said other U.S. airports not even in the path of the storm should start to see delays themselves right away as a result.
Boston's Logan Airport was closed as of 9 a.m. ET. It was expected to re-open later Wednesday morning.
Amtrak canceled trains in the Midwest and trains running on the Northeast Corridor service were experiencing delays of around 30-45 minutes, the company said.
More than 200,000 homes and businesses in Ohio began Wednesday without power, while in excess of 100,000 customers had no electricity in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which were hit with mostly freezing rain and ice. Rolling blackouts were in Texas, including Super Bowl host city Dallas.
As of 8 a.m. ET about 54,000 customers were without power in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area and in parts of east and west Texas, Oncor Corp. told NBC News. The energy provider supplies about a third of Texans.
The NFL did manage to stick to its Super Bowl schedule, holding media activities at Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington as planned, though the city's ice-covered streets were deserted.
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate said the agency is on standby with generators, food, water and other supplies to help state and local authorities.
In Chicago, public schools were closed for the first time in 12 years. Crews were still trying to rescue some motorists Wednesday morning who had been stuck on Lake Shore Drive for 12 hours. It wasn't clear exactly how many motorists had been trapped, and some had abandoned their vehicles.
"It was like, insane," one of the motorists, Frank Ercole, told WLS-TV. "No one knows anything. Everything's frozen."
Bulldozers moved snow away from an estimated hundreds of cars that remained buried up to their roofs Wednesday morning after drivers had been rescued. Only then could tow trucks move in. A shuttle bus sat abandoned with its door open, letting snow blow inside and build up on the driver's seat as the radio continued to transmit.
Raymond Orozco, chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley, said crews' efforts to rescue motorists had been "severely hampered" by snow drifts, high winds and white-out conditions.
Jenny Theroux said she was stranded from 4 p.m. Tuesday until about 4 a.m. Wednesday. Stuck just 800 feet from an exit, she repeatedly called the city for information.
"It was a very stressful experience toward the end, especially not knowing what's going on," Theroux said, after abandoning her car. "I'm just very confused as to why it all transpired this way."
The Weather Channel reported snow drifts of up to 8 feet in Lake County, north of Chicago.
Reports of more than 20 inches of snow came in from Racine, Wis.; parts of Kane County, west of Chicago; and Beach Park, Ill., NBC News said.
In Oklahoma, rescue crews and the National Guard searched overnight for any motorists who might be stranded along its major highways after whiteouts shut down Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of emergency in 53 counties, The Weather Channel said.
NBC News, The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.