Big storm targets Midwest with snow, wind

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 | 5:43 p.m. CST
A pedestrian jumps over a mound of snow while crossing a street in downtown Omaha, Neb., on Tuesday. A winter storm is traveling through the region.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Fierce winds ripped away the roof of a police station, thousands of people lost power and drivers stuck by closed highways settled in to wait as storms swept out of the West to the nation's midsection Tuesday.

Much of the Upper Midwest was covered in deep snow, and strong winds Tuesday night were expected to create blizzard conditions. The storm had already blanketed much of the mountain west and drenched Southern California with rain.


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The Columbia area should expect occasional rain before 11 p.m. followed by snow and sleet until midnight and occasional snow after midnight, according to the latest forecast from the National Weather Service. Less than an inch accumulation of snow and sleet is expected.

Flurries are possible on Wednesday, with a temperature of 16 forecast by the evening commute. Winds could gust as high as 43 miles per hour on the back side of the storm that's bringing heavy snow and blizzard conditions to far northern Missouri and Iowa.

Ice was the problem Tuesday morning in Oklahoma, where Interstate 40 was closed for about 25 miles between Clinton and Elk City. Mitch Dodson, a trucker hauling soda out of Durango, Colo., to Virginia, was waylaid at the Travel America plaza near the town of Sayre in western Oklahoma.

"It's just a sheet of ice from Amarillo to here," Dodson said. "It's a disaster."

With travel likely to get worse, officials were warning residents in parts of the West and Midwest to stay close to home. Blizzard warnings were issued for most of Iowa as well as eastern Nebraska, southern Minnesota and southern Wisconsin.

Some schools closed before the worst of the storm was expected to hit so that school buses wouldn't slip on slick roads.

"Anybody traveling tomorrow morning is really taking a huge risk I would say — a risk of being stranded and not having anybody be able to help you for 6 or 12 hours, probably," Karl Jungbluth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Johnston, Iowa, said Tuesday.

Jungbluth said a "classic, big, deepening winter storm" was affecting more than a dozen states. A foot or more of snow was expected in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph could create snow drifts of 8 to 15 feet.

"Snow and lots of it!" said Rose Jansen, assistant manager at Sparky's One Stop gas station in Schaller, Iowa. "We'll be here, no matter what."

Subzero temperatures caused a scene out of the movie "A Christmas Story," when a boy got his tongue stuck to a metal fence pole. Firefighters in Boise, Idaho, used a glass of warm water to free the boy, who they estimated was about 10 years old. Fire Capt. Bill Tinsley says the boy's tongue was bleeding a little, but he was allowed to continue to walk to school.

The weather also brought a film-like feeling for Sharmishtha Jindal, an 18-year-old University of Iowa freshman from Bhopal, India.

"I saw this in the movies and on television, but this is the first experience," Jindal said. "It's very different in the real world."

Heavy rain pounded some parts of the South. More than 4 inches were reported in spots in New Orleans, and flooded traffic slowed morning commutes. The storm also produced high winds and a possible tornado near Lake Pontchartrain, the National Weather Service said.

In Buffalo, N.Y., meteorologists expect the storm to dump 3 or more feet of snow between Wednesday and Saturday in the mainly rural snow belts east of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. They also urged residents to deflate blow-up Santas, warning that wind gusts near 60 mph could sweep away all but the most securely attached holiday decorations.

The storm had hit much of the West on Monday, bringing subzero wind chills in Washington state and heavy snow that closed schools and government offices in Reno, Nev. In the Phoenix area, fierce wind brought down power lines, left four hospitals temporarily without power and created wide outages. Freezing temperatures in Oregon were suspected in one death.

Big rigs were left jackknifed across highways in several states.

And more snow was coming: The National Weather Service said the upper elevations of the Sierra mountains could get up to 3 feet, with up to 4 feet forecast for the mountains of southern Utah.

Two people were killed in traffic accidents blamed on slick conditions in New Mexico. Winds of up to 100 mph were reported on St. Augustin pass between Las Cruces and White Sands Missile Range, and the powerful gusts ripped away the roof of the White Sands Missile Range's police station.

Officials in northern Arizona closed stretches of Interstate 17 and I-40 for part of the day, saying some areas were snow-packed and visibility levels were near zero. The storm dumped more than 20 inches of snow over Flagstaff, more than four times the record of 5 inches set in 1956.

Cold temperatures also were threatening California crops. The chilly weather hit with only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the navel and mandarin orange crops harvested, said Bob Blakely, director of industrial relations for the California Citrus Mutual.

"We've got a lot on the line," said Blakely. "Both of them combined you're probably looking at over a billion dollars in fruit hanging out there on the trees."


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