CHICAGO – A massive, slow-moving storm paralyzed parts of the nation’s midsection with heavy, wet snow Tuesday, straining power lines, closing schools, clogging roadways and delaying hundreds of flights before churning eastward, where forecasters expected it to dump 5-8 inches of snow in southeast Michigan on Wednesday afternoon and up to a foot in northern New England by later in the evening.
The storm was so big — making travel perilous Tuesday from the Oklahoma Panhandle to the Great Lakes — that snowfall was expected to linger in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest on Wednesday, with additional accumulations of up to 1 1/2 inches, said Matt Friedlein, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service’s northern Illinois office. Chicago received 2-4 inches of snow Tuesday, but some northern suburbs got up to 7 1/2 inches, Friedlein said.
Other parts of the Midwest got far more, with more than 15 inches in parts of Oklahoma, up to a foot in Kansas and up to 13 1/2 inches in Missouri. In Iowa, where the storm could drop more than a foot before it was over, officials warned that travel would be hazardous Tuesday night as temperatures fell and ice formed on snowy roads.
Keith Voss, manager of the Fareway Grocery in Centerville, Iowa, said he was planning to close the store nearly five hours early Tuesday because only a handful of customers had come in.
“The weather here has been really bad. They couldn’t get here, most of them, if they wanted to,” Voss said. “The town has been pretty rough travelling.”
With the power out and an electric water pump silenced, Shannon Wickware and a house full of relatives in Woodward, Okla., which received 15 inches of snow Monday, had only to fetch a pile of snow from outside whenever they got thirsty.
“It’s just snow. That’s all we can see,” Wickware said Tuesday. “We’ve been trying to melt snow and drinking that. And we’ve been just trying to keep the fire going.”
Fueled by a strong low pressure system, the crescent-shape storm began Sunday in Texas, then headed north. On Monday, whiteout conditions had made virtually all Texas Panhandle roads impassable. A hurricane-force gust of 75 mph was recorded in Amarillo, which got 17 inches. The heaviest snowfall was in Follett, Texas, with 21 inches.
Primary roadways in the Texas Panhandle reopened Tuesday as sunny conditions began to thaw ice and snow-packed surfaces slickened by a blizzard that blanketed the region.
The system, more common in early spring, contained so much moisture that it was difficult to forecast where it would rain or where it would snow — or even if the snow would accumulate, Friedlein said.
At one point, snow was falling at a rate of 1-2 inches per hour on the North Side of Chicago and northern counties, he said.
The back-to-back storms have raised hopes that the moisture might ease the drought conditions that have gripped the Midwest for more than a year. The snowpack now resting on the Plains will help, but it’s no drought-buster, experts say.
“If we get one more storm like this, with widespread 2 inches of moisture, we will continue to chip away at the drought,” said meteorologist Mike Umscheid of the National Weather Service office in Dodge City. “But to claim the drought is over or ending is way too premature.”
The Missouri Department of Transportation issued a rare “no travel” advisory, urging people to stay off highways except in case of a dire emergency. Conditions were so bad that some snowplows slid into ditches, underlining the danger even to well-equipped travellers.
The weight of the snow strained power lines and cut electricity to more than 100,000 homes and businesses. Hospitals closed outpatient centres and urgent-care clinics.
At least three deaths were blamed on the blizzard.
In the northwest Oklahoma town of Woodward, a person was killed after 15 inches of snow brought down part of a roof. The storm was also blamed for the deaths of two people who were killed in rollover crashes Monday on Interstate 70 in Kansas.
Heavy snow pulled down large trees and caused roofs to cave in at businesses in Belton and Warrensburg, Mo., where 13 inches of snow piled up. In Columbia, a canopy over gas pumps collapsed at a convenience store.
By late afternoon, airlines cancelled almost 500 flights at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway international airports.
Many commuters appeared to heed warnings and either stayed home or left work early. Chicago train cars were well over half empty during the evening commute, and traffic on some expressways flowed like it was a Sunday afternoon.
“This is fabulous,” said Mitzi Norton, 34, of suburban Elmwood Park, as she rode a train home. “I wish I drove.”
Associated Press writers Don Babwin in Chicago, Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, Josh Funk in Des Moines, Nomaan Merchant in Dallas, Jill Zeman Bleed and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Ark., Daniel Holtmeyer in Oklahoma City, Steve Paulson in Denver, Paul Davenport in Albuquerque, N.M., Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kan., and Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.