Saturday, January 14, 2017

US Midwest Braces for Weekend of Freezing Rain, Ice

A thick glaze of ice covered roads from Oklahoma to southern Illinois Friday in a winter storm that caused numerous wrecks, forced school cancellations, grounded flights and prompted dire warnings for people to stay home.

Winter storms are typically associated with heavy snowfall, but the one hammering the southern Plains and Midwest dumped freezing rain, a condition even harder for road crews to treat. A slick roadway was suspected in a fatal wreck in Missouri, where long stretches of Interstate 44 and Interstate 55 were ice-covered.

More freezing precipitation was expected in parts of the nation’s central corridor throughout most of the holiday weekend.

“There’s no mystery to driving on ice,” Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Al Nothum said. “It’s impossible to do. You have to slow your speed down.”

Schools, city offices closed

Hundreds of schools were closed, including several college campuses. St. Louis closed all city operations as it braced for what could be its worst ice storm in at least a decade.

The forecast prompted the NFL to move Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas Chiefs to Sunday evening to allow more time to treat roads and parking lots at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

The atmosphere was so turbulent that thunder rumbled as freezing rain fell in Joplin, Missouri.

Several utility companies brought in all available crews to work extended shifts in anticipation of heavy ice snapping trees and power lines. Scattered outages were reported, including about 2,500 in Springfield, Missouri. The Kansas National Guard mobilized about 200 soldiers to help first responders and stranded motorists throughout the weekend.

100 crashes in Missouri

Missouri Governor Eric Greitens and several officials thanked residents for heeding warnings to stay home. The Missouri State Highway Patrol said it responded to about 100 crashes Friday, with one fatality related to the storm.

National Weather Service meteorologist Steven Runnels said up to a half-inch of ice stretched from Joplin to St. Louis with minimal impact. But he warned that freezing rain would increase late Friday and early Saturday in west-central Missouri, and then hit Kansas City and northern Missouri Saturday night.

Forecasters issued ice storm warnings from the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles into southern Illinois, with up to 1 inch of ice expected in some locations. Precipitation is forecast to fall in waves Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Residents were taking the warnings seriously. Grocery stores were selling out of bread, milk and other necessities, and hardware stores were running out of flashlights, batteries and alternative energy sources.

“They’re grabbing generators, and I’m sold out,” said Raymond Bopp, assistant manager of the Woodward Ace Hardware store in Woodward, Oklahoma, about 140 miles northwest of Oklahoma City.

Emergencies declared

Several states activated emergency management procedures. In Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin declared a disaster emergency. The state set up generators and supplies at temporary shelters in the northern part of the state. Missouri Governor Greitens and top Cabinet officials manned an emergency operations center. Kansas officials were waiting for the worst of it, with freezing rain in much of the state expected to arrive Saturday.

Missouri Department of Transportation crews were working 12-hour shifts to treat roads and highways, though as some of the freezing rain melted, it washed the chemicals away, said Linda Wilson Horn, a spokeswoman for MoDOT.

“It’ll be a long, constant battle for our crews,” Horn said.

A driver was killed Friday morning when her SUV veered off of Interstate 55 near Festus, Missouri, south of St. Louis. The Highway Patrol said Tiffany Jackson, 33, died when her Chevy Trailblazer slid out of control on an icy overpass and struck several trees. The highway patrol said two other people were hurt in weather-related wrecks.

In St. Louis, Lambert Airport spokesman Jeff Lea said that by late morning, 60 arriving flights and 48 departing flights at Missouri’s largest airport have been canceled because of the ice. A handful of flights were canceled at Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport, but the airport remained open, according to a spokesman.

The storm began in California, dumping heavy snowfall in higher elevations that led to the evacuation of thousands of people as rivers surged.

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