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Storm wreaking havoc in Midwest, Plains

Residents dig out but are bracing for more snow

Jose Felix, who shoveled a drift on a sidewalk in Des Moines yesterday, may be back at it today. Blizzards are predicted to hit parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin through today. Jose Felix, who shoveled a drift on a sidewalk in Des Moines yesterday, may be back at it today. Blizzards are predicted to hit parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin through today. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
By Dinesh Ramde
Associated Press / December 26, 2009

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MILWAUKEE - Residents across the Midwest and the Plains who made it home for Christmas were digging out yesterday after a fierce snowstorm, while those who spent the night in airports and shelters tried to resume their journeys.

The National Weather Service said blizzards would hit parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin through today. The storm had already dumped significant snow across the region, including a record 14 inches in Oklahoma City and 11 inches in Duluth, Minn., Thursday.

Sections of interstate highways were closed in several states, and meteorologists warned that roads across the region remained dangerous.

Slippery roads have been blamed for at least 20 deaths this week as the storm lumbered across the country from the Southwest.

Ice storm warnings and winter weather advisories had been issued for parts of the East Coast yesterday, but the region was largely spared.

Paul Mews, who drove from Faribault, Minn., to a relative’s home in Plum City, Wis., yesterday morning, said the first 15 minutes of the 80-mile trip were clear, but a sudden surge of heavy snowfall produced a stretch of near-whiteout conditions.

“It was snow-pocalypse. It was wicked,’’ said Mews, 25. “We thought about turning around and going back.’’

He and his wife decided to continue when the surge passed minutes later, noting that plows were doing a good job of keeping roads clear. “Spending Christmas Day with family was more important than the weather,’’ Mews said.

Others weren’t as lucky.

Army Sergeant Mark Matthey was spending last night at the Flying J Travel Plaza in Sioux Falls, S.D., after Interstate 90 closed. Matthey, 26, had left Fort Bragg, N.C., Wednesday for his hometown of Spokane, Wash., in hopes of making it by late yesterday or early today.

Instead, he spent yesterday afternoon drinking coffee, watching TV, and making friends at the truck stop. He planned to find a spot to sleep on the floor or in the cab of his truck.

Matthey said he and his fellow stranded travelers were in decent spirits.

Meteorologists said massive snow drifts and blustery winds could cause whiteouts across the northern Plains. They urged travelers to stay home and pack emergency kits if they had to set out.

Since Tuesday, icy roads have been blamed for accidents that killed at least seven people in Nebraska, five people in Oklahoma, four in Kansas, two in Minnesota, and one each in North Dakota and near Albuquerque.

Winds were gusting from 45 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour across the Dakotas and Nebraska yesterday.

Crews were working to restore power to thousands of customers in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois, and Iowa.

About 200 people were stuck overnight at Oklahoma’s largest airport, which closed Thursday afternoon after several inches of snow clogged runways, said Mark Kranenburg, director of the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.

The airport reopened yesterday morning, but only one of three runways was operational.

Most of the stranded passengers were gone by yesterday afternoon.

While some people were able to catch flights, many went home.

Kranenburg predicted it would be two or three days before all runways were open and flights resumed as scheduled.

The 14 inches of snow in Oklahoma City broke a record of 2 1/2 inches set in 1914.

The previous record for Christmas Eve in Duluth, which has gotten more than 22 inches in two days, was a “paltry’’ 3 inches set in 1893, said Kevin Kraujalis, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

By the time the storm is over, it could be one of the 10 worst in Duluth’s recorded history.

With heavy winds producing snow drifts as deep as 5 feet, “it’s awful, it’s just awful,’’ Kraujalis said. “It’s a big workout just walking outside to check my weather equipment.’’

Still, he acknowledged that not everyone was turned off by the fresh powder.

“I’m sure kids with new sleds, skis, any outdoor sports equipment that Santa brought them, I’m sure it’s exciting for them,’’ Kraujalis said. “The snow is wet and heavy, so it’s good for packing, for making snowmen or whatever.’’