Deep snow closes I-70 from St. Louis to Kansas City

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

ST. LOUIS -- Potentially the worst winter storm to hit Missouri in decades delivered freezing rain and more than a foot of snow Tuesday, creating whiteout conditions so severe that state officials closed the entire 252-mile stretch of Interstate 70 linking Kansas City and St. Louis.

Joplin and other parts of southwest Missouri had a foot and a half of snow. Forecasters said parts of southwest, central and northern Missouri could get more than 2 feet by the time it ends today. The storm was so bad in Polk County that emergency officials requested help from the National Guard because the county didn't have enough vehicles to get elderly residents and shut-ins to shelter if power would go out.

By late afternoon, the Missouri Department of Transportation closed I-70, the main artery linking the state's two largest cities, because of fears motorists would be stranded due to poor visibility. MoDOT officials said it was the first time the highway had been closed entirely because of winter weather.

Other highways also were shut down, including I-44 from Springfield to the border with Oklahoma, where the highway's closing earlier in the day was causing trucks and other vehicles to back up and block exit ramps.

Missourians for days have been bracing for the storm. MoDOT and the Missouri State Highway Patrol urged people to stay home unless it was absolutely necessary to go out.

People generally heeded the advice. Accidents were relatively few given the conditions, largely because few cars were on the roads, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

"It's just coming down like crazy," said Kristi Strait, who was working at Clinton Discount Building Materials. "We have snow drifts out there, and the roads are just pure white. There's no traffic. Nothing. It's pretty dead."

Many communities all but shut down. In Columbia, the University of Missouri canceled classes Tuesday because of weather for just the third time in 20 years and did the same for today.

The St. Louis area got a glazing of freezing rain, then sleet, before the snow finally arrived around noon. The weather forced postponement of the NHL's Colorado Avalanche-St. Louis Blues game in St. Louis. No makeup date was immediately set.

Eastern Missouri's biggest concern was ice. Areas south and southwest of St. Louis were expected to get less snow but up to an inch of ice, raising concerns of widespread outages like those in November 2006 that left a half-million Ameren Missouri customers without power, some for more than a week.

Chip Webb, Ameren's superintendent of reliability support services, said the utility was doing everything it could to avoid a repeat performance. He said that over the past four years the company has significantly increased efforts to trim trees near power lines, has put more power lines underground and inspected and replaced hundreds of aging poles.

The entire system stretched more than 2,000 miles across a third of the country. Cities across middle America shut down hours ahead of the snow. Scores of schools, colleges and government offices canceled activities or decided not to open at all, and 9,000 flights had been canceled across the nation.

Extreme cold was following the snow, with overnight lows expected to be below zero Wednesday night. Warming centers opened around the state. St. Louis officials were calling needy residents to make sure they were warm and adding beds at shelters for the homeless.

Airports were all but shut down. Nearly 420 arriving and departing flights were canceled at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, though it remained open. Kansas City International also was open, but most flights were canceled.

At KCI, Tiffany Montes of Wichita, Kan., made it back from San Francisco after many delays, but she figured she'd spend most of the day at the airport since her husband couldn't get to Kansas City to pick her up. She has relatives in the city, but they were struggling to get there, too.

Those who had to drive mostly wished they hadn't. Truck driver David Peck, 51, left Kansas City at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday to deliver fresh produce and other food products to restaurants in Marshall, Boonville, Columbia and Jefferson City. By midmorning, as he waited outside a Chinese restaurant in Columbia whose owners were nowhere to be seen, he was imploring his boss on the other end of the phone to shut down the route.

"By the time I got to Columbia, all hell broke loose," he said. "I've already fell once, right on my back."

Not everyone was dreading the storm. Kids across Missouri got another snow day, and the rest of the week was very much in doubt.

In Columbia, Nathan Byrum was heading to work when he got a call and was told to go home, where his twin 6-year-old boys and 4-year-old daughter had been awake since 6 a.m., anticipating the snow.

"Usually we have to drag them out of bed," he said.

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