Massive storm begins trek across Midwest

Feb 1 2011 - 12:44pm

ST. LOUIS -- As a monster storm began to bear down on the middle of the nation Tuesday, those in its frigid and dangerous path could only hope it wouldn't live up to the hype.

The storm threatened to leave up to a third of the nation covered in a hodge-podge of brutal winter weather. Its reach was impressive: Snow and ice could fall along a 2,000-mile stretch from Colorado to Maine, tornadoes were possible in the South, and the weather was disrupting millions of people from Super Bowl travelers to schoolchildren.

Early indications were ominous. By mid-morning, freezing rain and sleet were already pelting several states from Texas through Ohio. Parts of southwest Missouri already had 6 inches of snow by 8 a.m. About 3,000 were without power in Ohio, 2,600 in Oklahoma. Roads were ice-covered and virtually impassable in several states.

Forecasters predicted more than 2 feet of snow in some places, up to an inch of ice plus snow in others. Making matters worse was the expectation of brutal cold and winds gusting to near 60 mph.

"What really gives us nightmares is the prospect of widespread power outages," said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. "It's cross-our-fingers time."

The St. Louis-based utility company AmerenUE had nearly 500 of its own linemen ready to go and was bringing in another 800 from as far away as Michigan. Massive amounts of ice predicted south of St. Louis, followed by strong winds, could cause a repeat of 2006, when the ice knocked out power in parts of Missouri for weeks.

Hardware stores were selling out of snow shovels, backup generators and ice-melting salt. Grocery stores were doing all they could to keep supplied with the staples.

"Milk, bread, toilet paper, beer," said Todd Vasel of the St. Louis-based grocery chain Dierbergs, who said pre-storm crowds were more than double the norm. "It's been the equivalent of Christmas Eve, which is normally one of our biggest days of the year."

The storm brought the potential for some strange happenings -- thundersnow, lightning, even tornadoes. Forecasters said some regions could get up to 2 inches of snow per hour through parts of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Blizzard warnings were in effect in much of the Midwest. Kansas City, St. Louis and Milwaukee all seemed in line for a foot of snow or more. Even Chicago, where snow is common, could be in for its third-worst blizzard since record-keeping began, with up to 20 inches forecast.

After burying the Midwest, the storm was expected to sweep into the Northeast, parts of which already are on track for record snowfall this winter. A winter storm warning was in effect for New York City, with forecasters predicting a mix of snow, sleet and ice. Federal workers in Washington were given the option of working from home because roads on Tuesday were already slippery.

When the snow finally ends, bitter cold will set in. Temperatures in some parts of the Midwest will dip well below zero. Gusty winds will blow all of that snow. Visibility will be virtually zero at times.

In Chicago, the National Weather Service warned that high winds with gusts of up to 60 mph could produce waves on Lake Michigan of up to 25 feet, leading to considerable coastal flooding and freezing spray, particularly along Lake Shore Drive. If forecasters are right, Chicago could see its third-biggest snowstorm, overshadowed only by the 21.6 inches in 1999 and the 23 inches of snow that fell in 1967.

Travel across the plains and Midwest was a mess.

Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City and Tulsa International Airport were both closed. Thousands of flights were canceled at other Midwestern airports. In Texas, the destination for thousands trying to get to the Super Bowl on Sunday, Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport was closed for about an hour so crews could treat runways glazed over with ice.

Driving wasn't any easier. The Iowa Department of Transportation said most roadways in the state were partially or completely covered with a combination of ice and snow. Officials warned that drifts and whiteout from blowing snow make travel treacherous, if not impossible, in some areas.

Deadly wrecks were reported in Minnesota and Kansas. But accidents in Missouri were surprisingly few given the increasingly worsening conditions. Highway Patrol Sgt. Al Nothum said he drove along Interstate 44 in St. Louis County and went miles without seeing another car as people apparently heeded warnings to stay home.

"It was pretty deserted out there," Nothum said.

Plows and salt trucks were out in full force, just in case. The worst of the weather was still a full day away in Michigan, but 85 percent of Oakland County's fleet was already out salting roads in preparation for the "death storm," county Road Commission spokesman Craig Bryson said.

"We're trying to get hard pack off the roads before the big stuff comes," he said. Cots were set up in the commission's garages so drivers could nap between making their runs.

School districts, universities and legislatures closed. Governors in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois declared emergencies, even as the storm was just arriving. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon activated 600 members of the National Guard.

Warming centers were set up around Missouri in anticipation of power outages. St. Louis officials called needy residents to check on their well-being and set up extra beds for the homeless.

The Illinois Legislature canceled sessions for the entire week because of expected travel problems.

It wasn't just people getting ready for the weather. The Humane Society of Missouri urged people to bring pets inside. Farmers and ranchers prepared livestock.

Kevin Hafner, who works for Express Ranches' operation in El Reno, Okla., said workers prepared enough feed to last their animals for 48 hours. Workers were preparing to chop ice on ponds so the cattle will have adequate water.

"They are tough enough to handle it," Hafner said of the cattle. "They've got a good hair coat this year, but we have to have enough feed to give them energy to keep going."

 

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