Midwest, Plains residents digging out from storm with blizzards still possible in some areas

By Dinesh Ramde, AP
Saturday, December 26, 2009

Forecasters warn of continued blizzards in Plains

MILWAUKEE — Residents in the nation’s heartland were digging out after a blustery storm as meteorologists warned that blizzard conditions could continue across the northern Plains on Saturday.

The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings for parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin through Saturday. The storm had already dumped significant snow across the region, including a record 14 inches in Oklahoma City and 11 inches in Duluth, Minn., on Thursday.

Slippery roads have been blamed for at least 21 deaths this week as the storm lumbered across the country from the Southwest.

Paul Mews, who drove from Faribault, Minn., to a relative’s home in Plum City, Wis., on Friday morning, said the first 15 minutes of the 80-mile trip were clear, but a surge of heavy snowfall produced a stretch of near-whiteout conditions.

“It was snow-pocalypse. It was wicked,” said Mews, 25. “We thought about turning around and going back.”

They decided to continue when the surge passed minutes later.

Others weren’t as lucky.

Army Sgt. Mark Matthey was spending Friday night at the Flying J Travel Plaza in Sioux Falls, S.D., after Interstate 90 closed. Matthey, 26, left Fort Bragg, N.C., on Wednesday for his hometown of Spokane, Wash., in hopes of making it by late Friday or early Saturday.

Instead, he spent Friday afternoon drinking coffee, watching TV and making friends at the truck stop. Matthey said he and the other travelers were in decent spirits.

“Everybody has the attitude that you have to play the cards you were dealt,” he said. “No use in getting upset about something you can’t control.”

Interstates also were closed in North Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. Meteorologists warned that massive snow drifts and blustery winds could cause whiteouts across the northern Plains. Officials urged travelers to stay home and pack emergency kits if they had to set out.

In Texas, volunteer firefighters and sheriff’s deputies rescued hundreds of people stranded along Interstate 44 and Texas State Highway 287 near Wichita Falls. The area recorded up to 13 inches of snow, said Doug Speheger, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“It’s really been horrible,” Wichita County Sheriff David Duke said. “Although we live in north Texas and get a lot of cold weather, we weren’t prepared for the significant amount of snow that we’ve received.”

Only two of the sheriff department’s vehicles have four-wheel drive, so rescuers used their own pickups and the heavy 5-ton brush trucks normally used to fight fires to get to motorists, many of whom ran out of gas while they were stuck in traffic stalled by the storm.

“It was exciting at first to wake up and go, ‘Oh, this will be great. We’ll have a white Christmas,’” Wichita Falls Mayor Lanham Lyne said. “Then it kept snowing. As the roads became impassable, then we started to worry.”

The storm grounded flights at South Dakota’s biggest airports. Sioux Falls Regional Airport was closed until Saturday morning at the earliest, manager Dan Letellier told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Flights also were canceled at Rapid City Regional Airport and Pierre Regional Airport.

Mark Kranenburg, director of the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City predicted it would be two or three days before all three runways were open and flights resumed as scheduled at Oklahoma’s largest airport.

The 14 inches of snow in Oklahoma City broke a record of 2.5 inches set back in 1914.

The previous record for Christmas Eve in Duluth, which has gotten more than 22 inches in two days, was 3 inches in 1893, said Kevin Kraujalis, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

With heavy winds producing snow drifts as deep as 5 feet, “it’s awful, it’s just awful,” Kraujalis said. “It’s a big workout just walking outside to check my weather equipment.”

Since Tuesday, icy roads have been blamed for accidents that killed at least seven people in Nebraska, five people in Oklahoma, four in Kansas, two in Minnesota and one each in North Dakota, Missouri and New Mexico.

Associated Press writers Patrick Condon in Minneapolis, Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., Melanie Welte in Des Moines, Iowa, John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., Linda Stewart Ball in Dallas and Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.

On the Net:

National Weather Service: www.nws.noaa.gov

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