By MIRA OBERMAN
December 25, 2009
A deadly winter storm has snarled holiday travel across the central United States as freezing rain and heavy snow caused traffic chaos and grounded hundreds of flights.
At least 18 deaths on the roadways were attributed to the nasty storm which arrived on Wednesday bringing freezing rain and heavy snow and was not expected to clear before Saturday.
"There's just a humungous storm moving across the centre of the country, basically from the Canadian border to Texas and spreading from west Colorado to Illinois," said National Weather Service (NWS) spokesman Pat Slattery.
"Christmas travel is going to be very difficult."
The northern parts of the massive system were expected to drop up to 60cm of snow by Christmas Day while flood and tornado warnings were issued further south.
A powerful twister on the storm's southern flank slammed the town of Longview in eastern Texas late Wednesday, ripping the roof off a house and toppling trees, the local KLTV station reported.
"We would recommend that people if at all possible postpone their travel plans just to be on the safe side," Slattery said in a telephone interview.
"This is not a storm to be messed with."
Freezing rain made driving extremely dangerous - especially after dark when the rain turns to ice - and high winds would dramatically reduce visibility, Slattery warned.
"If they can wait a couple days, the snow will be there but it won't be blowing sideways anymore."
The Kansas highway patrol reported five fatalities on the prairie state's icy roads.
"We're becoming pretty inundated with slideoffs right now," spokeswoman Edna Buttler told AFP.
"Here in Topeka it's starting to pelt down ice and sleet and it's expected to turn to snow. So on top of the ice-covered roads we'll have snow and that will increase the dangerous conditions."
Six people died on Nebraska roads - including a Christian singer on his way home from a ministry training session and a fire captain - the Omaha World Herald reported.
Three people were killed after a dust storm near Phoenix caused a 22 vehicle pileup, the Arizona Republic reported.
Three others were reported killed in New Mexico, and one person died in Minnesota.
Scattered power outages were also reported as a result of the high winds and ice on the lines.
More than 200 flights were cancelled in Minneapolis on Thursday and dozens more were delayed.
On Wednesday, train service was interrupted from Washington to Niagara Falls following a three-hour power outage in New York and more than 260 flights were cancelled in Chicago.
A NWS winter storm warning issued early Thursday for South Dakota, and echoed in alerts for neighbouring states, said the event was a "life threatening system." It warned that "any travel from Wednesday night into Friday night will be treacherous."
The governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, declared a state of emergency before the storm's arrival and urged residents to stay off the roads.
"It's better to be safe than stranded somewhere. The best gift to give your loved ones is to be safe," he said.
It is the second major weather system to sweep the United States in recent days, after a record breaking snowstorm that slammed the eastern seaboard at the weekend. That first storm creating travel chaos and cut short sales on what were traditionally major shopping days ahead of Christmas.
A final Senate vote on landmark health care reform was pushed up to daybreak on Thursday to give lawmakers and staff a chance to make it home for the holidays in the face of the massive Midwest storm.
© 2009 AF