Snowstorm Wallops Midlands
BY BARBARA CORTESE
Extreme wintry conditions wreaked
havoc across portions of the Midlands Friday, stranding motorists, causing
power outages and forcing schools and businesses to close, as weary road
crews battled yet another winter storm.
Up to a foot of snow fell in parts of central and eastern Nebraska and southwest Iowa. Wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour created whiteout conditions for drivers. Thousands of homes and businesses were without power.
Blowing snow prevented snowplows from keeping many highways safe for travel. Interstates 29 and 80 were closed in Iowa for a couple of hours each because of the blowing snow and icy conditions. The Iowa Army National Guard was mobilized to assist stranded motorists on I-80.
Overwhelmed by snowdrifts and poor visibility, the Nebraska Department of Roads and the State Patrol asked motorists in southeast Nebraska to stay off roads, especially any east-west rural highways.
"One of my own men slid off the road trying to go around a snowdrift," said Adams County Roads Superintendent Greg Anderson. "A few drifts are quite menacing."
The strong winds, snow and ice were blamed for power outages in mostly rural areas. Outages occurred in Beatrice, Pawnee City, Lewiston, Burchard, Crab Orchard and Filley.
The conditions made it difficult for crews to reach some towns with outages, much less get to the downed lines.
"Our trucks kept getting stuck," said Jeff Hanson, spokesman for the Omaha Public Power District. "Some cities had to give us dedicated snowplows just so we could get where we needed to go."
By Friday afternoon, power had been restored to Elmwood and Eagle. But the lights were still out north of Falls City and in Tecumseh, Hanson said. Some OPPD customers may remain without power until early today,he said.
The Nebraska Public Power District reported outages Friday afternoon in Stella, Shubert, Humboldt, Burchard and Dawson, spokesman Dave Simon said.
Blowing snow also was harassing Norris Public Power District crews in southeast Gage County, where Pickrell, Wymore, Blue Springs, Odell, Filley, Virginia, Lewiston and Crab Orchard all had experienced outages.
In western Iowa, power was out for as many as 15,000 MidAmerican Energy customers. Most severely affected were Montgomery, Fremont and Mills Counties.
A number of shelters were set up to help people fight the cold. About 60 people in Red Oak took shelter at the Iowa National Guard Armory and Montgomery County Memorial Hospital. Most of the town's electricity was restored by noon, but some outlying areas remained without power in the afternoon.
Alliant Energy reported that about 10,000 customers lost power for at least part of the day in several eastern and central Iowa towns because of ice on electrical lines.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack declared Highway 6 east of Council Bluffs a disaster area, and the road was closed shortly after noon. The declaration allows the state to obtain additional assistance in clearing the road and helping stranded motorists, said Steve Mefford, area maintenance manager for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
"It's a mess out here," Mefford said.
I-29 south from Council Bluffs to the Missouri border was closed for more than two hours. Two accidents occurred on I-29 shortly before 11:30 Friday morning - about an hour before the decision was made to close the Interstate. In one of those, an Iowa State Patrol cruiser was hit, but the officer was not injured. Another trooper, who was working the accidents on I-29, had to be taken to an area hospital for possible frostbite.
A number of the I-29 motorists were escorted to nearby motels for shelter. Nick Hatcher and Erin Croy, both freshmen at Creighton University, were among those. They were involved in a three-vehicle accident near Glenwood while on their way to Kansas City to catch a bus for a ski trip to Aspen, Colo.
"We're just really happy that no one suffered severe injuries. It put a damper on our plan, but there's more to life," Hatcher said. "The road was a sheet of ice."
In Nebraska, the State Patrol warned motorists on Interstate 80 that they would be traveling at their own risk. The patrol said any car that ended up in the ditch would not be towed until the conditions improved, which was not expected until early today.
Eastbound Interstate travelers were forced to stop in Omaha as Interstate 80 was shut down from Council Bluffs to Des Moines.
Across the Midlands, many schools and businesses had closed for the day.
The weather didn't stop state government in Lincoln, where 8 inches of snow fell. All but three of Nebraska's 49 state senators arrived at the Capitol, and Lori McClurg, director of administrative services, said no state office had to be closed.
"We're business as usual," McClurg said.
The rotunda of the State Capitol was all but empty, however, with the snow keeping many lobbyists away.
Nebraska Right to Life canceled its annual lobby day - which usually attracts between 50 and 75 people from across the state. Executive Director Julie Schmit-Albin said she hopes to reschedule the event within a few weeks.
Speaker of the Legislature Doug Kristensen of Minden said many lawmakers stayed in Lincoln Thursday night after attending a State Chamber of Commerce banquet.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln called off classes again Friday after closing up early Thursday.
Numerous sporting events, including district high school wrestling tournaments, were postponed as the weather made travel difficult, especially in rural areas.
Winds gusted to more than 30 miles per hour from McCook to Omaha, with Norfolk and Omaha seeing the strongest gusts of 40 miles per hour.
The storm also brought bitter low temperatures to northwest Nebraska, where Chadron and Alliance saw temperatures dip to 16 below zero.
The combination of strong winds and low temperatures dropped wind chills to around 40 below zero in Beatrice, Norfolk, Columbus, Sidney, O'Neill and Ainsworth, and around 30 below in Omaha, Grand Island, Hastings, Kearney, Imperial and Alliance.
The winds were expected to die down by early today.
Another chance of snow was in the forecast for most of the state late today or early Sunday.
World-Herald staff writers Chris Clayton, Veronica Rosman, Joe Kolman and Leslie Reed contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press.