9 Killed in Intense Winds Sweeping Midwest, North

Times Staff Writer

Utility crews struggled to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers Friday after a powerful, pre-winter storm -- punctuated by hurricane-force wind gusts -- swept across the Midwest and Northeast.

At least nine people were killed, several in auto accidents when trees fell on their vehicles. At the height of the storm, more than 1.4 million people were without power.

The National Weather Service reported winds measuring 74 mph in State College, Pa., the minimum speed for a hurricane designation.

"We had high-wind warnings up from New England all the way down through the Carolinas," said Mike Wyllie, a meteorologist with the weather service. "We had hurricane-force gusts throughout much of the East Coast [Thursday] and into this morning further to the north."

In Chicago, it took firefighters almost five hours Friday to extinguish a wind-whipped blaze that spread from a brick warehouse to two other industrial buildings and a home.

The strong winds also seriously hampered efforts to contain a fire in Pawtucket, R.I., that engulfed an old mill and at least 13 homes. Houses for blocks around the Greenhalgh Mills complex were evacuated. At least 11 injuries were reported, including one firefighter.

In Vermont, the season's first major snowfall added to the problems faced by power company crews.

"It's been very slow going. The roads weren't plowed," said Dorothy Schnure, spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power Corp. "Sometimes it takes replacing six spans of line along six poles to restore power to one customer.

"We were hit with high winds. In the central portion of the state, we were hit with heavy snow, a foot to 18 inches," Schnure said.

A wind gust blew a construction worker off the roof of a Home Depot store in Oneonta, N.Y., injuring him seriously.

The winds also broke the mast of a 42-foot sailboat off Block Island, R.I. The Coast Guard rescued the five people aboard the vessel.

Flights were delayed at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and LaGuardia Airport in New York. At Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the gusts moved an empty United Airlines jet, causing a wing to hit part of the gate at a terminal. The plane and the structure were damaged.

Ken Reeves, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather in State College, said the winds were caused by the combination of a strong storm moving through eastern Canada and a high pressure system coming in from the Midwest.

"The difference in barometric pressure between the two weather systems was a major factor in creating the strong winds," Reeves said.

"Atop that, very strong and cold air moved across the region several thousand feet above the ground," he explained. "That colder air sank and mixed with less chilly air close to the surface of the earth. The result was some of the strong winds aloft reached the surface."

Reeves said it didn't appear the pattern causing the major windstorm would repeat itself frequently.

In Waterbury, Vt., Edwin Pierce, the owner of C&L; Taxi, said the winds blew 18-inches of snow into deeper drifts.

"We were ready for it. We changed our snow tires before," he said.

Susan Grant, owner of the Center General Store, said some Waterbury residents who came in for breakfast and lunch told her the storm, which knocked trees down, took them by surprise.

"All the hunters are very excited," she said. "Hunting season starts tomorrow, and the snow shows the deer tracks."

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