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Winter storm blasts Missouri hard

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Potentially the worst winter storm to hit Missouri in decades began its trek across the state Tuesday, dumping more than a foot of snow while delivering freezing rain, blustering winds and dangerously cold temperatures.

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Heavy snow almost obscures a nearby water tower Tuesday morning in Vienna. Missourians were hit Tuesday with the worst winter storm the state has seen in decades. The storm is expected to continue today, with bitter cold temperatures taking over.

By midday, parts of southwest Missouri already had more a foot of snow. Stockton had 15 inches, Joplin 14, Carthage 13. The storm was so bad in Polk County that emergency officials requested help from the National Guard because the county didn't have enough vehicles to get elderly residents and shut-ins to shelter if power would go out.

Missourians for days have been bracing for the storm, and it was living up the hype. The state Department of Transportation said many major roads and interstates were covered with snow and/or ice. MoDOT and the Missouri State Highway Patrol urged people to stay home unless they had to go out.

Early accounts indicated people were heeding that advice. Only a few accidents were reported across the state, according to the patrol.

"It's just coming down like crazy," said Kristi Strait, who was working at Clinton Discount Building Materials. "We have snow drifts out there, and the roads are just pure white. There's no traffic. Nothing. It's pretty dead."

Snowfall totals expected to reach record levels in many locations were off to a fast start, with the storm striking first in southwest Missouri before continuing its northeastern track.

By the time it reached mid-Missouri, "whiteout" conditions from the snow and wind were so bad that MoDOT shut down Interstate 70 Tuesday afternoon in three counties. Crews were also struggling to keep open I-44 around Joplin. Two MoDOT trucks were among those who found ditches.

Many communities all but shut down. In Columbia, the University of Missouri canceled classes Tuesday because of weather for just the third time in 20 years, and did the same for Wednesday.

Missouri lawmakers cut their week short because of the storm. The full House was not scheduled to meet in a formal session until next week, though a few House committees still planned hearings.

Normally bustling downtown streets near the state Capitol were quiet, too. Many stores were closed, with signs on the windows blaming the weather.

Others weren't going to let a predicted couple of feet of snow keep them from work. The bakery Chez Monet in downtown Jefferson City was open, adding hot oatmeal for chilled customers.

Owner Joan Fairfax said she drove to work OK. She wasn't sure about the ride home as weather worsens, but said she could walk if necessary.

"I have never missed a day of work because of weather in 20 years," said Fairfax, 54.

The St. Louis area got a glazing of freezing rain, then sleet, before the snow finally arrived around noon. The weather forced postponement of the NHL's Colorado Avalanche-St. Louis Blues game in St. Louis. No makeup date has been set.

The biggest concern in eastern Missouri was ice. Areas south and southwest of St. Louis were expected to get less snow but up to an inch of ice, raising concerns of widespread outages like those in November 2006 that left a half-million AmerenUE customers without power, some for more than a week.

Chip Webb, Ameren's superintendent of reliability support services, said the utility is doing everything it can to avoid a repeat performance. He said that over the past four years the company has significantly increased efforts to trim trees near power lines, has put more power lines underground and inspected and replaced hundreds of aging poles.

Ameren also has been proactive in anticipation of this storm, with about 1,100 linemen on standby, some borrowed from companies in other states. Six trailers stocked with wire, replacement lines and other goods have been dispatched to possible trouble spots.

Few outages were reported statewide by mid-afternoon. But Webb expected that to change.

"There is ice on the lines," and it could be there for days, Webb said.

Making matters worse is blustery wind and bitter cold. Forecasters expect wind gusts in parts of Missouri of up to 40 mph before the storm dies out Wednesday. Overnight lows on Wednesday are expected to dip below zero in much of the state, and Thursday night won't be much better.

Warming centers opened around the state. St. Louis officials were calling needy residents to make sure they were warm and adding beds at shelters for the homeless.

Airports were all but shut down. Nearly 420 arriving and departing flights were canceled at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, though it remained open. Kansas City International also was open, but most flights were canceled.

At KCI, Tiffany Montes of Wichita, Kan., made it back from San Francisco after many delays, but she figured she'd spend most of the day at the airport since her husband couldn't get to Kansas City to pick her up. She has relatives in the city, but they were struggling to get there, too.

Those who had to drive mostly wished they hadn't. Truck driver David Peck, 51, left Kansas City at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday to deliver fresh produce and other food products to restaurants in Marshall, Boonville, Columbia and Jefferson City. By midmorning, as he waited outside a Chinese restaurant in Columbia whose owners were nowhere to be seen, he was imploring his boss on the other end of the phone to shut down the route.

"By the time I got to Columbia, all hell broke loose," he said. "I've already fell once, right on my back."

Not everyone was dreading the storm. Kids across Missouri got another snow day, and the rest of the week was very much in doubt.

In Columbia, Nathan Byrum was heading to work when he got a call and was told to go home, where his twin 6-year-old boys and 4-year-old daughter had been awake since 6 a.m., anticipating the snow.

"Usually we have to drag them out of bed," he said.

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