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Winter storm blasts Missouri, closes I-70 statewide

Winter storm blasts Missouri, closes I-70 statewide

February 2nd, 2011 by JIM SALTER, Associated Press in News

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A massive winter storm paralyzed a wide swath of Missouri, burying parts of the state under as much as a foot-and-a-half of snow, shutting down Interstate 70 from Kansas City to around St. Louis and creating outage concerns.

Missourians for days have been bracing for the storm, and it lived up to the hype, beginning early Tuesday, arriving first in southwest Missouri. It kept going throughout the day. Snowfall totals were staggering: 18 inches in Joplin, 17 in Columbia, over a foot in Hannibal. Totals in some areas could reach 2 feet, even more, by the time the snow stops Wednesday.

St. Louis, along the very edge of the line, seemed to luck out. Forecasters warned of ice, then up to a foot of snow. Instead, most of the metro area got mostly sleet by late evening Tuesday. Sixty miles north of St. Louis city was a foot of snow; 60 miles south, almost nothing.

The sleet in the city left roads a slippery mess. The St. Louis Blues called off their NHL game against Colorado.

Over most of the state, roadways were a mess. Visibility was virtually zero on I-70, prompting the unprecedented closure of the roadway's entire 252-mile stretch in Missouri. The interstate was expected to remain closed until at least Wednesday morning. The Missouri Department of Transportation said it was the first time the highway had been closed entirely because of winter weather.

Other highways also were shut down, including I-44 from Springfield to the border with Oklahoma, where the highway's closing earlier in the day was causing trucks and other vehicles to back up and block exit ramps.

The state set up emergency shelters at several spots along I-70 to aid those stranded along the roadway. The Red Cross set up a shelter at Springfield along the closed section of I-44. The Highway Patrol and Missouri National Guard were patrolling both interstates to help any stranded motorists.

MoDOT and the Missouri State Highway Patrol urged people to stay in unless absolutely necessary.

People generally heeded the advice. Accidents were relatively few given the conditions, largely because few cars were on the roads, though one of the Highway Patrol's own vehicles was involved in a fatal wreck on U.S. 63 near Rolla. The patrol said Karen Chambers, 55, of Licking, died around 5:20 a.m. when she lost control of her SUV on the snow-covered road and struck a patrol cruiser head-on. The patrol officer was hospitalized with moderate injuries.

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, providing hot oatmeal for chilled customers.

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

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

Eastern Missouri's biggest concern was ice. Areas south and southwest of St. Louis were getting less snow but forecasters warned that total ice accumulation could reach an inch in some spots, raising concerns of widespread outages such as those in November 2006 that left a half-million AmerenUE customers without power, some for more than a week.

By late evening, those concerns were unfounded: Ameren reported just 22 Missouri outages.

Still, the utility's leaders feared the worst was yet to come.

"We are pleased with our continued reliability efforts and that there were very few outages during the first phase of this storm," said Richard Mark, a senior vice president at Ameren. "However, because of the ice buildup on trees and power lines, the wind gusts present an additional threat that will continue until temperatures rise above freezing."

Getting above freezing will likely wait until the weekend at the earliest. Extreme cold was following the snow, with overnight lows expected to be below zero Wednesday night and Thursday night. Winds reaching 40 mph made matters worse. 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 open, but few flights were coming or going. More than 400 arriving and departing flights were canceled at Lambert Airport in St. Louis. Kansas City International also was open, but most flights were canceled.

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."

Bill Draper, Maria Fisher, Margaret Stafford and Dana Fields in Kansas City, Mo., David Lieb and Chris Blank in Jefferson City, Mo., and Alan Scher Zagier in Columbia, Mo., contributed to this report.