Winter storm blasts midwest


SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) – A crippling winter storm lashed the central part of the nation with another blast of freezing rain, sleet and snow Saturday, causing widespread power outages and tying up highways and airports.

The storm was expected to continue through the weekend, laying down a coat of ice and snow from Texas to Illinois, where an ice storm warning was in effect through Monday morning.

“We’re in the middle of this storm,” said Joe Pedigo, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in St. Louis. “Friday was the first of three waves.”

Farther west, frigid arctic air reached as far south as southern and central California, where plunging temperatures prompted worry about the homeless and crops.

The storm in the Midwest had been blamed for at least six deaths, and brought Amtrak service in Missouri to a halt on Saturday. Trees and other debris knocked down by the weight of ice blocked tracks at several locations between St. Louis and Kansas City.

About 115,000 homes and businesses had no electricity Saturday in the St. Louis area.

“We have hundreds of crews. We kept them working all night long,” Susan Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the utility Ameren, said Saturday. “Like everyone, we don’t know what the extent of damage will be with the arrival of more ice.”

Between 60,000 and 70,000 customers were without power in Springfield, Mo., Saturday, plus an unknown number of homes and businesses in surrounding towns, said Jenny Fillmer Edwards, spokeswoman for the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.

Two shelters in Springfield were filling up on Saturday and the Red Cross planned to open two more.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt declared a state of emergency Saturday and activated the National Guard. He said the worst wave may come Sunday.

In San Marcos, Texas, it wasn’t clear whether a tornado or straight-line wind damaged at least 10 homes, several businesses and the police headquarters. Fallen power lines blocked a section of Interstate 35 until crews could remove them, said Melissa Millecam, communications manager for the city, 30 miles south of Austin. .

“It’s a good bit of damage,” she said. “It’s still stormy and we’ve got power outages in different places.”

More than 6 inches of rain fell in places across central Texas, causing local flooding. Water also blocked three highways in southeastern Oklahoma, the Department of Transportation reported.

About 300 flights were canceled Saturday at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, spokesman David Magana said. Cancellations also were reported in St. Louis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

In Oklahoma, about 40,000 customers were without power early Saturday, said Michelann Ooten, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

The weather grounded the Oklahoma State men’s basketball team and a game against the University of Nebraska scheduled for Saturday in Lincoln was postponed.

More rain, freezing rain and snow was expected from northwest Oklahoma all the way to Wisconsin on Sunday, Pedigo said.

In Colorado, 61 homes were evacuated Friday night in Highlands Ranch 10 miles south of Denver because of a leaking gas line. Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Stutz said the company could not shut off the gas because that would leave thousands without heat, so a crew planned to install a bypass line around the leak.

“On any other day we would take the pipe off-line and repair it, but with the extreme cold and high demand, it’s very problematic,” Stutz said.

Sun-loving Southern Californians also got a rare dose of freezing weather. Early Saturday, thermometers registered just 8 degrees at Lancaster, 22 at Palmdale and 30 in Santa Barbara, according to the weather service. Much of Los Angeles County stayed in the low 40s.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an emergency proclamation Friday citing “conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property … as a result of extreme low temperatures and freezing conditions.”

A.J. Yates, California’s agriculture undersecretary, said officials were checking for damage to the state’s citrus crop.

“If it gets below 25 degrees for six hours or more we could have substantial damage to the citrus industry,” he said.

Citrus growers said it was too soon to evaluate the damage.

“Overall I don’t think it was a catastrophe last night,” grower Ron Turner, 52, of Exeter, said Saturday. “But how this thing plays out in the next few days is going to be the key.”

Associated Press Writers Jim Salter in St. Louis, Maria Sudekum Fisher in Kansas City, Tim Talley in Oklahoma City, Robert Weller in Denver and Ana Beatriz Cholo in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

AP-ES-01-13-07 1641EST