Midwest, Plains brace for massive winter storm

Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Transportation officials lined up snow plows and utilities prepared for the worst as a blizzard crept towards the Midwest Monday. Forecasters said the storm could drop up to an inch of freezing rain and warned of high winds, whiteout conditions and snow drifts that might reach 10 feet in parts of the region.

The National Weather Service said the storm was expected to march from the Rockies through much of the Plains and Midwest, hitting the area particularly hard on Tuesday and Wednesday, before making its way to the East Coast. Bitterly cold temperatures are forecast in the wake of the storm.

Early Monday, freezing drizzle made roads slick in northwest Missouri, causing cars to slide off highways in Buchanan County and prompting authorities to cancel classes at public and private schools in the area. Freezing rain and fog led to some flight delays Sunday at the airport in Rapid City, South Dakota.

At Edele and Mertz Hardware just a few blocks from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis, patrons were lined up at 7 a.m. waiting for the store to open. Snow shovels were big sellers, but worker Steve Edele said ice melt and salt were flying out the door.

"'Freaking out' is a great way of putting it," Edele said. "The icing — that's what scares people."

Chicago and Milwaukee are expected to be particularly hard-hit as the week progresses. The weather service issued a blizzard watch for Tuesday and Wednesday for southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and northwest Indiana and forecasters said snowfall totals could reach up to 2 feet in some areas.

The weather service said the heavy snowfall combined with high winds could create whiteout conditions, particularly on Tuesday night into Wednesday, making driving extremely dangerous in some areas. Snow drifts of 5 feet to 10 feet are possible. The service said winds on Tuesday could reach up to 60 mph in open areas and near Lake Michigan.

Once the storm has moved through, the weather service said wind chills as cold as 40 degrees below zero could hit parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and other parts of the Midwest.

In St. Louis and throughout Missouri, residents were bracing for the worst, with forecasters calling for a particularly hazardous and potentially deadly mix: The storm was expected to hit in full force Tuesday with up to an inch of ice, followed by 3-4 inches of sleet, then perhaps a half-foot of snow or more.

If that wasn't bad enough, low temperatures on Wednesday and Thursday night were expected to reach zero or worse, and winds could howl at up to 40 mph.

After burying the Midwest, the storm was expected to sweep into the Northeast, parts of which are already on track for record snowfall this winter. In New Hampshire, where pedestrians have been forced to walk in the street in some places because of piled-up snow, crews rushed to remove it before a new foot or so fell on the state.

By Monday morning, much of the Midwest was still mostly dry with some scattered reports of freezing drizzle and relatively light snowfall. Nevertheless, several schools closed or were shutting down early based on the forecast.

The St. Louis-based utility company Ameren opened its emergency operations center amid worries that the weight of the ice and snow could duplicate a severe crisis in 2006, when an ice storm downed thousands of trees and power lines. Parts of southeast Missouri were left without electricity for more than a week.

Ameren officials say they're not waiting for the storm to hit. The utility has six 53-foot "Storm Trailers" that can be dispatched to trouble spots. The 53-foot trailers are stocked with wire, poles, and hardware to repair damaged lines and facilities.

The Missouri Department of Transportation had 400 workers and 200 vehicles at the ready in the St. Louis area, with plans to get the interstates and major thoroughfares cleared first.