ST. LOUIS (AP) – The season’s first big wintry storm blustered across the Midwest on Friday and closed in on the Northeast, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity, stranding airline passengers and burying streets in wet, heavy snow.

The storm was blamed for at least eight deaths as it cut a swath from Texas to the Northeast, bringing snow, freezing rain and high winds, and closing schools and businesses.

The East Coast saw rain, thundershowers and high winds late Friday, with damaging gusts up to 55 mph expected as the cold front passed.

Ameren Corp. reported about 520,000 customers without power in Illinois and Missouri on Friday after ice and snow blanketed much of the state, snapping power lines and tree limbs. Ron Zdellar, Ameren vice president, said it would be days before all customers had electricity again.

“We know a lot of people are going to have to leave their homes, probably over the next few days,” he said.

Part of a roof collapsed at a Peoria nursing home Friday evening, causing minor injuries, police said. The snow may have been a factor.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt declared a state of emergency and deployed National Guard members to help people in need. More than 200 were to be in the St. Louis area by Saturday morning, and 500 others were available if needed around the state. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius declared a disaster emergency for 27 counties.

Shelters and warm-up centers opened in the St. Louis area, with temperatures expected to drop into the teens.

Two St. Louis police officers escorted 89-year-old Francis Oldani on Friday afternoon to a warming center, where volunteers offered lunch and hot chocolate. Oldani said she lost power Thursday night and called police in desperation Friday morning.

“It was miserable; I was so cold,” Oldani said. “I just had to put on as many clothes as I could. I put a blanket around me and sat in a chair. I guess these people will provide for me. I really don’t know.”

The fire chief in the St. Louis suburb of Affton said an 87-year-old woman died early Friday in a house fire that started after an ice-laden tree limb fell on a power line, causing the fuse box in her basement to short-circuit.

In Chicago, where snow covered street signs and commuters walked gingerly along slushy streets, forecasters warned residents to be careful digging out of what they called “heart attack snow” – difficult to shovel because it is so heavy.

A man died Friday afternoon after shoveling snow in Racine, Wis., which got up to got 14.5 inches, officials said.

Chicago received 6.2 inches, and many areas of Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri got more than a foot.

As the storm moved east, strong showers and gusty winds caused even more people to lose power. In Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, more than 100,000 customers lost power at some point during the day, though many had power restored. In Tennessee, 38,000 Knoxville Utilities board customers lost power early Friday at the peak of the outages, and in West Virginia, more than 45,000 lost power at least temporarily.

In central Kentucky, winds toppled a church steeple. The Forks of Dix River Baptist Church, near Lancaster, was damaged when the steeple and a “big, big chunk of the roof” was torn off, said the Rev. Jerry Browning.

In New York, severe thunderstorms and high winds toppled trees and knocked out power to at least 65,500 customers outside the New York City area. One person died after a tree fell onto a house in Ellenville.

The combination of sleet, rain and snow made driving treacherous in many areas. In Milwaukee, the slippery roads were too much for vehicle after vehicle – even a snowplow overturned.

Near Paducah, Texas, a sport-utility vehicle carrying a high school girls’ basketball team slid on an icy patch and tipped over, killing a 14-year-old player and injuring six teammates and the coach. The tournament the Paducah High School team was headed to was canceled.

In Missouri, where two storm-related fatal accidents occurred Thursday, officials closed a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 70 for several hours Friday morning.

Icy roads were also a factor in two other traffic deaths, one in Kansas on Wednesday and one Thursday in Oklahoma.

Scores of cars and semitrailer trucks skidded off a 70-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in Illinois, bringing traffic to a standstill. The state used snowmobiles Friday evening to take food to motorists, Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey said.

The Midwest’s nasty weather caused problems for travelers nationwide. United Airlines canceled 821 flights as of late afternoon Friday, according to company spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

Mike Crabb of Orlando, Fla., was supposed to fly out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after attending a Radiological Society of North America meeting. But he gave up and used his laptop computer to buy a one-way ticket out of Midway Airport.

“Right now you just got to do what you got to do,” said Crabb, who was celebrating his 28th birthday. “I understand things like this happen.”



On the Net:

Weather Underground: http://www.wunderground.com

National Weather Service: http://iwin.nws.noaa.gov

Intellicast: http://www.intellicast.com


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