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Posted on Fri, Feb. 01, 2002

Storm smacks KC; eastern Kansas, western Missouri declared a disaster area

The Kansas City Star

Steve Foutch cuts down a large tree that was blocking traffic through his neighborhood near the intersection of 37th Street and Madison Avenue in Midtown Kansas City. Foutch was among hundreds of thousands Kansas City-area residents left without power in this week's ice storm. He was doing his part to help others by cutting down trees  and keeping his friends' families warm with a wood-burning fireplace in his house.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Kansas City Star

Steve Foutch cuts down a large tree that was blocking traffic through his neighborhood near the intersection of 37th Street and Madison Avenue in Midtown Kansas City. Foutch was among hundreds of thousands Kansas City-area residents left without power in this week's ice storm. He was doing his part to help others by cutting down trees and keeping his friends' families warm with a wood-burning fireplace in his house.

One of the worst storms in Kansas City history left about half the area's households without power Thursday, prompting the governors of Missouri and Kansas to declare large sections of both states disaster areas.

The ice storm that blasted through Tuesday and Wednesday left most of the metropolitan area a dangerous tangle of downed trees, felled power lines and snarled traffic. Officials estimated that 20,000 fallen trees blocked streets in Kansas City alone, and that one-third of the city's traffic lights were out.

"We are facing an emergency in this metro area...that is of a magnitude greater than we have experienced in the past," Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes said, with utilities reporting 350,000 customers without electricity at the peak of the outages.

From western Johnson County to Independence, from the Northland south to Grandview, the devastation easily outpaced that of October 1996 and March 1984, when storms also splintered thousands of trees and darkened hundreds of thousands of area homes. Schools and governments closed, as did many restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses.

During an intense 12 hours, from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 a.m. Thursday, Johnson County emergency dispatchers took 420 calls, mostly from people reporting tree limbs pulling down overhead lines. The Kansas City Fire Department dispatchers took 1,100 emergency calls in a 12-hour period; ordinarily, they receive 1,400 in a month.

By Thursday night, officials had attributed one death to the weather.

Blue skies should return today and warmer weekend temperatures should help melt the ice, but it could take a week for power to be restored to the more than 200,000 customers who still lack it. The affected utilities are Kansas City Power & Light Co., Independence Power and Light, the Board of Public Utilities in Kansas City, Kan., and Westar Energy in Kansas.

The cleanup will likely take much longer and cost millions of dollars. No estimates were available Thursday.

Kansas City, Johnson County, Wyandotte County, Lee's Summit, Gladstone and Liberty all declared states of emergency Thursday, a first step in getting outside financial assistance in the cleanup, and putting decision-making authority in the hands of emergency management teams.

The message to residents area-wide was simple:

"If you're able to be at home, stay at home," said Mike Selves, Johnson County's emergency director. "You're better off."

For those without heat and electricity, many area communities opened shelters. Meantime, KCP&L imported 300 electrical line crews and 150 tree-trimming crews from nine other states to speed the return of power to customers.

"This is the most devastating storm we've ever experienced in our 120-year history of serving the Kansas City metro area," Bill Downey, KCP&L's executive vice president, said Thursday. "We will be at it through the weekend and into next week. We plead for patience as we try to do this."

Gov. Bob Holden's disaster declaration for much of western Missouri will expedite state aid to local governments for storm-related problems. U.S. Sen. Kit Bond has pledged to help Missouri get federal aid in the recovery.

Gov. Bill Graves declared 22 Kansas counties -- including Johnson and Wyandotte counties in the metro area -- disaster areas, which also will help county leaders get state and federal assistance.

Holden spoke with the mayors of Kansas City, Lee's Summit and Independence about the need to coordinate cleanup efforts.

"They need help, and we will provide it," he said.

"It truly is a disaster in western Missouri," Holden said.

The declarations also give Holden and Graves the option of deploying the National Guard. Decisions on whether to do so will depend on the types of requests the state receives from local officials.

The Missouri National Guard last deployed in the Kansas City area during the flooding of July and August 1993.

Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer said a task force would begin assessing the extent of the damage and what help is needed -- both financial and physical -- to deal with it.

This year's Kansas City budget includes $500,000 for emergency storm cleanup, but about $100,000 of that already has been spent.

City Manager Bob Collins said that once weather conditions improve, residents can place storm debris at the curb to be picked up by city crews. Asplundh Tree Expert Inc., which is on contract to the city, called in 40 additional crews from as far away as Alabama.

Officials estimate 95 percent of the trees on city right of way were damaged and as many as 20,000 blocked streets.

In the Northland, power outages were reported across southern Clay and Platte counties. From Liberty to Excelsior Springs and Kearney, thousands of residents were without power, and downed trees and limbs blocked roads.

At Kansas City International Airport, some flight delays were expected because of the storm and similar weather problems in Chicago and Detroit. Runways were operational, and some airlines faced fewer problems than they had when the storm struck Wednesday.

"Our airfield is open, and we're in good shape," KCI spokesman Joe McBride said. "I talked to three airlines, and they said there were some cancellations."

Barnes said it was the most widespread ice-storm and power outage she could recall.

It easily beat October 1996, when 6.5 inches of wet snow swamped thousands of trees that split under the weight. More than 240,000 area households -- including 175,000 KCP&L customers -- lost power, some for several days. KCP&L suffered $11.3 million in losses. Cleanup stretched for weeks and cost Kansas City $3.6 million and Overland Park $1.8 million.

The worst previous ice storm was in March 1984. It cut power to more than 200,000 area homes and cost Kansas City alone more than $2.4 million. More than 8,500 households spent at least six nights in the dark and some did not regain electricity for nearly two weeks.

Another ice storm cut power to 95,000 area customers in January 1973.

None of those storms competes, however, with the city's worst natural disasters in terms of lost lives or property. In May 1957, a tornado killed 44, injured 531 and damaged hundreds of homes. The flood of 1903 killed 20, left tens of thousands of homeless, washed away 16 Kansas River bridges and deprived Kansas City of water, electricity, natural gas and street cars for 12 days.

Nevertheless, this week's storm terrified many residents.

Melanie Mattes of Roeland Park was just drifting off to sleep Wednesday night when a flash of blue light from a transformer woke her up.

"Then there was this huge, the biggest crash I've ever heard in my entire life," she recalled Thursday. "I could've sworn I was going to have a heart attack."

The neighbors' tree had split, and half of it had fallen onto their roof right above their bedroom. It didn't puncture the roof, but it tore up shingles and gutters. Then a branch from a different tree fell onto the hood of her husband's truck.

She and her husband tried to get back to sleep in a different room in the house, but it wasn't easy.

"Limbs were still breaking and crashing everywhere," she said. "We were just counting the crashes."

Kansas City Councilman Jim Rowland, who lives near Ward Parkway, likened Wednesday night to "the Wild West," as he watched transformers throughout his neighborhood blowing and sparking.

So far, only one death has been attributed to the ice storm: A Harrisonville man died Thursday morning from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Police said Christopher D. Moles, 41, had attached a gasoline-operated generator inside his garage. Inadequate ventilation led to carbon-monoxide fumes leaking into the house, killing Moles and injuring his wife and a neighbor who had come to help them. The conditions of the wife and neighbor were not immediately available.

The storm brought an abrupt halt to the remarkably pleasant weather that had reigned in Kansas City for most of this winter.

The Star's Donna McGuire, Lynn Horsley, Kit Wagar, Matt Campbell, Finn Bullers, Summer Harlow, Linda Man, John Petterson, Anne Lamoy, Benita Y. Williams, Richard Espinoza and Bill Graham contributed to this report.