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February 22, 2024

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Midwest blizzard causes ‘war zone,’ leaving 23 dead

DES MOINES, Iowa – A thick glaze of ice brought down power lines and cut electricity to close to a million homes and businesses, closed schools and canceled flights yesterday as a major storm blasted the nation’s midsection.

At least 23 deaths had been blamed on the storm system since the waves of sleet and freezing rain started during the weekend.

Officials in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma had declared states of emergency. President Bush declared an emergency in Oklahoma yesterday, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.

A shell of ice as much as an inch thick covered trees, power lines, streets and car windshields Monday in parts of Oklahoma and Missouri, with thinner layers elsewhere. About an inch of ice was expected Yesterday over parts of Iowa, followed by up to 5 inches of sleet and snow.

“This is a big one. We’ve got a massive situation here and it’s probably going to be a week to 10 days before we get power on to everybody,” said Ed Bettinger, a spokesman for Public Service Company of Oklahoma. “It looks like a war zone.”

Iowa’s largest school district closed for the day in Des Moines, telling its nearly 31,000 students to stay home, and kids across most of Oklahoma and in the Kansas City, Mo., area stayed home for a second day.

Schools also were closed in parts of Wisconsin, including Milwaukee Public Schools with 85,000 students. “We thought about our kids on foot,” said Milwaukee schools spokeswoman Roseann St. Aubin. Some drivers couldn’t even get to their buses, she said.

Nearly 600,000 Oklahoma homes and businesses still had no electricity yesterday, most of them since Monday when power lines began snapping under the weight of ice and falling branches – the biggest power outage in state history. Utilities in Missouri reported about 170,000 homes and business without power. Outages elsewhere affected more than 100,000 customers in Kansas, more than 60,000 in Iowa and nearly 18,000 in Illinois.

The power was on at Big Apple Bagels in Ottumwa, but many others weren’t so lucky, said owner Lesley Owczarski.

“Most of the places don’t have power so a lot of people have been coming to the bagel shop,” she said. “If they can come in and get warm and have a hot coffee and a latte, why not? I can understand it’s boring sitting at home.”

The Kansas National Guard was asked to supply generators to several locations, including two nursing homes, said Sharon Watson, Kansas Emergency Management spokeswoman.

The storm even put a crimp on presidential campaigning, with Republican Mike Huckabee canceling stops in western Iowa and former President Bill Clinton calling off appearances in eastern Iowa on behalf of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A backup generator enabled a Home Depot store to open in Oklahoma City, but a sign warned customers of shortages: “No Generators, Ice Melt, Scrapers, Lamp Oil, Firewood, Kerosene Heaters, Chainsaws.”

One of the store’s last kerosene heaters had been grabbed by Jay Garcia, who lost power at his Oklahoma City home two days earlier.

“We have kids in the house and we’ve got to keep them warm,” Garcia said. “I called the power company, and they said it could be seven to 10 days before we get the power back on.”

Des Moines International Airport closed because of ice late Monday and could be closed most of yesterday, said spokesman Roy Criss. The airport, which also was shut down by winter weather two weeks ago, has 138 arrivals and departures per day, he said.

“This rain keeps refreezing. We put chemicals down, it melts and the freezes again. We can’t stay ahead of it,” Criss said. “This is not fun.”

More travelers were grounded at Chicago, where about 250 flights were canceled yesterday morning at O’Hare International Airport and departure delays averaging 15 to 30 minutes, said Karen Pride of the city’s Department of Aviation.

Kansas City International Airport in Missouri canceled more than 90 flights yesterday morning, but spokesman Joe McBride said that was probably due to problems at other airports.

Southeastern Nebraska also had power outages yesterday and some flights in and out of Omaha’s Eppley Airfield were canceled.

At least 23 deaths – most of them in traffic accidents – had been blamed on the ice and cold since the weekend, including 15 in Oklahoma, four in Kansas, three in Missouri and one in Nebraska.

Associated Press writers Ken Miller in Oklahoma City, Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., and Marcus Kabel in Springfield, Mo., contributed to this report.

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