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Wed May 23, 2012
Massive Storm Leaves Frozen Footprint Across U.S.
Residents across a huge swath of the U.S. were left shivering in Arctic-like temperatures a day after a 2,000-mile-long winter storm barreled through, dumping record or near-record amounts of snow, downing power lines and caving in roofs.
Wind chills dipped to nearly 30 below zero in some parts early Thursday as people began digging out from the sprawling system. It unloaded as much as 2 feet of snow, crippled airports and stranded drivers in downtown Chicago. Much of Texas was under a hard freeze warning Wednesday; light snowfall stubbornly lingered into the night in Maine.
Even the sunny Southwest wasn't spared: Freezing temperatures delayed Thursday's opening round of the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., and led to school closures in parts of New Mexico.
"Behind this system, there is cold air pouring south," National Weather Service Deputy Director Laura Furgione said. "Chicago is seeing winds gusting to 70 mph, which is near hurricane strength."
Chicago's 20.2 inches of snow was the city's third-largest amount on record, forcing public schools to cancel classes for a second straight day. The city's iconic Lake Shore Drive reopened before dawn Thursday after crews worked overnight to clear snow and stranded vehicles. Drivers had abandoned hundreds of vehicles stopped in their tracks by snow that drifted as high as the windshields late Tuesday and into Wednesday morning.
"In 31 years with the city, I haven't experienced anything like we did at Lake Shore Drive," said Raymond Orozco, chief of staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley. "Hundreds of people were very inconvenienced, and we apologize for that."
City crews who worked into the night Wednesday were aiming to have Lake Shore Drive passable for the morning rush hour.
"This is probably the most snow I've seen in the last 34 years," joked 34-year-old Chicagoan Michael George. "I saw some people cross-country skiing on my way to the train. It was pretty wild."
In South Dakota, dozens of drivers were stranded by snow and ice on a stretch of Interstate 29. The heavy snowfall prompted the state's department of transportation to close I-29 from Watertown to the border with North Dakota.
"We've been having people stranded on the interstate since about 6:30 [Wednesday] night," Janet Eastman, who works at the Coffee Cup fuel stop in Sisseton, S.D., told NPR. "They have the snowcat out, and they're either bringing people to Sisseton or here to the Coffee Cup."
Tens of millions of people stayed home Wednesday. On Thursday, lonely commuters all along the storm's path struggled against drifts 3 and 4 feet deep in eerily silent streets, some of which had not seen a plow's blade since the snow started. Parkas and ski goggles normally reserved for the slopes became essential for getting to work.
Utility crews raced to restore power to thousands of homes and businesses in Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where freezing rain and ice brought down electrical lines.
Rolling blackouts were implemented across Texas, including in Super Bowl host city Dallas, because of high demand during a rare ice storm. The outages would not affect Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington, said Jeamy Molina, a spokeswoman for utility provider Oncor. But other Super Bowl facilities, such as team hotels, were not exempt, she said.
Airport operations nationwide have slowed to a crawl, and flight cancellations reached 13,000 for the week, making the latest system the most disruptive so far this winter. A massive post-Christmas blizzard caused about 10,000 cancellations.
Snowfall totals this winter are off the charts along parts of the Interstate 95 corridor between Boston and Philadelphia. Newark, N.J., was hit with 62 inches of snow through Jan. 27, compared with the seasonal average of 25 inches. In New York City, 56 inches of snow has fallen on Central Park, compared with the 22-inch seasonal average.
In Portland, Maine, the downtown snow-storage area was expected to reach capacity after this week's storm — the first time in three years that has happened. "It's not so much about plowing as it is about where to put it," said Mike Schumaker, a contractor near Albany, N.Y. "We still have snow from Christmas that hasn't melted."
Officials in the Northeast warned homeowners and businesses of the dangers of leaving snow piled up on rooftops. Fire Marshal Al Santosstefano watched as a brick building collapsed under the weight of snow in Middletown, Conn., just after workers fled the structure.
"Bricks started falling off the front building," Santosstefano said. "They saw that things were going to go badly, so they took off. As they did, the whole front of the building exploded out.
"It's like a bomb scene," he said. "Thank God they left the building when they did."
A gas station canopy on New York's Long Island collapsed, as did an airplane hangar near Boston, damaging aircraft. Roof cave-ins also were reported in Rhode Island. The University of Connecticut closed its hockey rink as a precaution because of the amount of ice and snow on the roof. The school hoped to have it inspected and reopened in time for a game Saturday.
Boston drivers were spinning out on sheets of solid ice, and the weight of snow and ice on rooftops was a major concern, said Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman Scott MacLeod.
"Even light, fluffy snow on a flat roof tends to act as a sponge and just sucks up that water and adds additional weight to already stressed structures," MacLeod said.
The system was blamed for at least 12 deaths, including a homeless man who burned to death on Long Island as he tried to light cans of cooking fuel, and a woman in Oklahoma City who was killed while being pulled behind a truck on a sled that hit a guard rail.
The White House granted a request by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday to have the state declared a disaster area, but the state was already reeling from the challenge of digging out from under 20 inches of the snow that fell Tuesday.
"We certainly still have a couple of more days to get through this because there is a lot of snow piled up still very, very cold, chilly," Fallin said.
Even Arizona has been hit by the massive system — meteorologists have issued a rare hard-freeze warning for the area. Water pipes in parts of the state are buried close to the surface of the ground, where they can be easily affected. Overnight temperatures in the Phoenix suburbs are forecast to dip to just around 20 degrees, 5 degrees colder than the record set in 1919.
The storm derived its power from the collision of cold air sweeping down from Canada, and warm, moist air coming up from the South. Weather experts said La Nina, a temperature phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, also contributed.
"The atmosphere doesn't like that contrast in temperature. Things get mixed together, and you have a storm like this," said Gino Izzo, a National Weather Service meteorologist. "The jet stream up in the atmosphere was like the engine, and the warm air was the fuel."
With reporting from NPR's David Schaper in Chicago and Tovia Smith in Boston, Gary Ellenbolt of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Michael Cross of KOSU and Mark Moran of KJZZ. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.