Storm fallout: Two die in highway accidents, thousands without power in St. Louis area

Friday, December 1, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:51 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

KANSAS CITY — A winter wallop of snow and ice paralyzed much of Missouri on Friday, closing part of Interstate 70 for several hours, stranding motorists — and police — overnight and resulting in at least two highway deaths.

Ameren Corp., struggling to restore power to an estimated 280,000 Missouri customers, mostly in the St. Louis area, asked for patience during what it expected would be long outages. Officials in St. Louis said five warm-up centers had been opened.

Ron Zdellar, Ameren vice president, said roughly 1,200 employees are working to restore power but acknowledged it would be days before all customers have electricity again.

He warned customers to be cautious as cold temperatures are forecast through the weekend.

“We know a lot of people are going to have to leave their homes, probably over the next few days,” he said.

A 50-mile stretch of I-70 that was closed before dawn in mid-Missouri, which received some of the heaviest snowfall, was mostly re-opened by 11 a.m., the Missouri State Highway Patrol said. Crews were clearing a bottleneck on the highway in Callaway County where tow trucks were removing stalled or stranded vehicles.

Both of the storm-related fatal accidents occurred Thursday.

One person was killed Thursday night in Boone County when a snow plow blade struck a vehicle on U.S. 63, said patrol spokesman Lt. John Hotz. The state trooper who responded to the crash then apparently became stranded himself, Hotz said.

The patrol identified the deceased driver as Carlos Ramirez-Barrera, 28, of Mexico. Two passengers — one from Mexico the other from El Salvador — were taken to University Hospital in Columbia with serious injuries, the patrol said.

On Interstate 44 near Rolla, a motorist involved in an accident earlier Thursday was killed standing near his vehicle when he was hit by one of five vehicles involved in the accident, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Brian Gross, 40, of Davenport, Iowa, was killed, and a semitrailer truck then slid through a cable barrier and hit a first responder’s car, a patrol car and another vehicle. No other injuries were reported.

“Apparently there were several of our troopers that were stranded out there all night,” along with an unknown number of other motorists, Hotz said. “We’re having trouble even getting patrol cars around.”

Snow amounts varied around the state, but mid-Missouri was hit hardest, with more than a foot in several locations, including Columbia. In the St. Louis area, snowfall amounts ranged generally from 2 to 6 inches, but the storm was made worse by sleet and freezing rain that fell most of Thursday before the snow began.

Snowfall totals varied widely in western Missouri, from just a trace at Kansas City International Airport to 16 inches at Sedalia and 18 inches at Butler.

Springfield and southwest Missouri woke up to the heaviest carpet of snow in three years and temperatures well below 20 degrees. Overnight snowfall in southwest Missouri left between 9 and 12 inches along the Interstate 44 corridor from Joplin to Rolla, including 10 inches in Springfield, meteorologist Gene Hatch of the National Weather Service in Springfield said.

“This is more snow in one event than we’ve had in the past two years total,” Hatch said. The last heavy snowfall was in March 2003, when between 9 and 12 inches fell. On average, Springfield gets 4 inches in December and 20 inches all winter.

The Missouri Department of Transportation deployed all 2,000 of its snow plows but had to pull them off the roads briefly overnight because drivers could not see through the snow, said Pete Rahn, director of the agency. Snow plows from northwest Missouri, which wasn’t as badly affected, were called to help along I-70, he said.

“We ourselves are wondering how people are going to be getting around,” Rahn said. “We haven’t experienced a storm like this in years.”

In Columbia, MU cancelled classes Friday for the first time since 1998.

In the St. Louis area, Ameren said nearly 500,000 customers in Missouri and Illinois were without power Friday morning, many of them in the St. Louis area. Many lost power as hours of freezing rain and sleet that preceded the snow weighed down branches that snapped and fell onto power lines.

It marked the second time this year Ameren has dealt with massive power outages in the St. Louis area. Two huge storms in three days in July caused several days of outages for hundreds of thousands of residents.

Ryan Nicholls, Greene County’s director of emergency management, said it was fairly quiet early Friday after a rash of power outages Thursday. About 20 people spent the night at a warming center that the city and Salvation Army opened Thursday. It had a capacity of 200.

Power was out to about 250 customers of Springfield’s City Utilities, down from a peak of 15,000 Thursday.

The weather also severely limited public transportation. Diane Williams, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis public transportation company Metro, said many MetroLink light rail stations were closed, and bus service was limited.

About 300 stranded passengers spent the night at Lambert Field because of canceled and delayed flights. Airport officials said the wind was creating a problem because, as runways were opened, the wind blew snow back onto it.

The National Weather Service continued a winter storm warning, due in large part to the wind, which was gusting Friday morning at more than 30 mph.

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