Winter storm blasts U.S.

MIAMI, Okla. -- A ferocious winter storm pounded the nation’s heartland with howling winds and up to 2 feet of snow Tuesday, crippling airports, closing interstate highways and schools, and disrupting life in ice-glazed areas from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and from Colorado to Maine.

More than a third of the nation shivered, with some states lashed by freezing rain rather than snow. What one official called a “once in a lifetime” storm promised to dump an avalanche of more snow and sleet on the winter-weary region Wednesday.

Gale-force winds created blinding white-outs in parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio and elsewhere. Cars and trucks were abandoned in towering snowdrifts, and thick ice brought down trees and power lines in scores of communities. Major outages were reported in Texas, Ohio and elsewhere.

Even seasoned winter veterans took cover. John Doyle, 49, a truck driver from Chicago, spent Tuesday afternoon biding his time and watching the weather reports at the Holiday Inn Express in Miami, Okla.

“I went out to my truck about 4:30 this morning and just turned around and came back in,” he said.

Nearly 6,000 flights were canceled in Chicago, Boston, New York, Des Moines, Iowa, and elsewhere, causing delays and disruptions in air service across the United States. Several thousand more cancellations were expected nationwide Wednesday.

Among the airports forced to close temporarily was Dallas-Fort Worth, the destination for football fans hoping to attend Sunday’s Super Bowl in nearby Arlington, Texas. Officials said snow had never closed the airport before. With ice coating its streets, Dallas looked poised to host an ice bowl.

In Chicago, the National Weather Service warned that high winds could churn waves up to 25 feet high on Lake Michigan, leading to coastal flooding and freezing spray, particularly along busy Lake Shore Drive. With up to 20 inches of snow forecast, Chicago could see its third-biggest snowstorm ever.

Farther west, the Iowa Department of Transportation said most roadways in the state were partially or completely covered with a combination of ice and snow. Parts of Interstate 80 were closed.

Deadly wrecks were reported in Minnesota and Kansas, according to The Associated Press.

“If you don’t have to travel, don’t do it. If you can stay home, do it,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback told reporters before heading to the state’s emergency operations center. “You might get in. You won’t get back.”

Missouri transportation officials closed Interstate 70 along its entire length from Kansas City to St. Louis amid heavy snow and whiteout conditions.

New York City posted a winter storm warning, with forecasters predicting a mix of snow, sleet and ice. In Washington, non-emergency federal employees were allowed to work from home or take unscheduled leave because roads were icy from freezing rain.

Blizzard warnings were issued in seven states, and storm alerts or freezing rain advisories posted in a dozen more. At least 28 states were affected in all. Governors in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois declared states of emergency.

The weather was miserable even in some areas where it didn’t snow. Denver was bathed in brilliant sunshine, but with highs of about 0 degrees, most public schools were closed and authorities advised people to stay off the streets to avoid the potentially lethal cold.

Jack Damrill, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, called the storm a “once in a lifetime” event. Snowdrifts up to 6 feet high blocked some roads, he said, leaving so many motorists and highway patrol officers stranded that snowplows couldn’t get through.

Crews began clearing roads as soon as the snow began falling Monday night, said Brenda Perry, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. “We expect to be working around the clock for several days with this storm,” she said.

The blizzard provided a bonanza for tow-truck owners, snowplow operators, hardware stores, groceries and others.

In Miami, Okla., Craig Perry, owner of Perry’s Towing and Recovery Services, said the first call came at 1 a.m. -- a police officer stuck in a ditch -- and his trucks had run non-stop since then.

Henry Burrow, general manager of the nearby Buffalo Run Hotel, said the hotel was full and he had made food runs to the adjacent casino for guests who had been caught by surprise and weren’t dressed for the weather.

After burying the Midwest, the storm was expected to roar into the Northeast, where heavy snow this year already has shattered some records.

A barrage of blizzards already has battered much of the country this season, with weeks of winter ahead. Tuesday’s mega-storm will add vast new clean-up costs, overtime, missed work and other expenses to already stressed local and state budgets, officials said.