Storm stalks across the nation

Times Staff Writer

Tina Shah squeezed her way through the tense crowd at O'Hare International Airport on Friday afternoon, desperate to get to a cousin's wedding in New York and hoping her flight wouldn't be canceled a fourth time.

She's a bridesmaid. The wedding is today at 9 a.m.

"I got a call from United Airlines on Thursday, telling me that my flight was canceled. I've been trying to get out of here ever since," said Shah, 26. "I can't believe the weather is so freezing and horrible, when it was so sunny and gorgeous just a couple days ago."

That was a common sentiment expressed across the Midwest and Great Plains on Friday as the first major snowstorm of the season crawled its way across the country -- causing at least nine deaths, hundreds of canceled flights, shutting down scores of schools, turning highways into icy hazards and cutting off the power to millions of homes.

The National Weather Service had issued storm warnings from Texas to the Great Lakes area, as well as warnings of wind, rain and sleet spreading east Friday night.

The leading edge of the cold front brought severe thunderstorms and high winds to the East Coast on Friday night. Power was out to thousands of homes outside the New York City area.

Earlier in the day, Illinois, Missouri and parts of Wisconsin were covered in thick, white blankets: 18 inches of snow in Butler, Mo.; 17 inches at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Kenosha, Wis.; and 14.6 inches in Havana, Ill.

In Missouri, Gov. Matt Blunt declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard after ice pulled down trees and snapped power lines, cutting off electricity to more than half a million customers. It could take several days to restore power to everyone, officials said.

"We are working hand-in-hand with local officials to provide access to state resources as they work through the aftermath of this winter storm," Blunt said in a statement.

With sleet and thick swirls of snow covering Chicago early in the morning, homeowners bundled up and began to shovel their walks at dawn. Taxi drivers carefully made their way through nearly empty streets downtown, and residents trudged out to convenience shops in coats and boots worthy of Arctic cold. Schools across the region were closed Friday, delighting students who could stay home and annoying parents who had to scramble to find someone to watch their kids.

Amy Kaspar was heading to a business meeting in Vernon Hills early Friday morning, a 35-mile trip that usually takes her an hour from her home in downtown Chicago. It took her almost four times that long.

"The roads had 4-inch-thick chunks of ice and compacted snow on it. There was a huge accident. And the road was just littered with spun-out cars," said Kaspar. "It was ugly."

The temperature drop of 30 degrees or more in the last three days -- Chicago was a chilly 29 at noon Friday -- and gusting northern winds came as a shock. Throughout the Midwest, an unusually warm November approached record highs and lulled people into believing winter would arrive gradually.

As far north as Madison, Wis., suburban lawns and vegetable gardens had remained green; last week, joggers in Milwaukee could comfortably run along Lake Michigan in T-shirts and shorts.

"Any time you're enjoying 70-degree weather, then you're suddenly shoveling snow, that's a shock to the system," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "It might only be Dec. 1, but nature doesn't wait for the astronomers to say it's winter. In the next few days, temperatures in the region are going to plunge" into the teens.

With Chicago seeing more than 6 inches of snowfall Friday, a cargo plane operated by FedEx slid off the runway at O'Hare and ended up in the mud. No one was injured.

Hundreds of flights were canceled at O'Hare and Midway International Airport, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and scrambling for hotel rooms.

But some tried to make the best of the delays.

"I've got enough time to go back downtown and do a little more Christmas shopping, I suppose," said Tyla Barnes, 32, who was visiting here and scheduled to fly home to Phoenix early Friday morning. "First thing I'm going to buy: a warmer coat."



Tracking the storm

As the first major snowstorm of the season spread across the Midwest and Plains, power lines were downed, schools closed and roads turned hazardous.

Accumulated snowfall and some storm-related events

1. Power outages affect 2.4 million customers

2. Chicago O'Hare Intl. Airport: 265 flights canceled; Fed Ex cargo plane slides off the runway

3. Kansas' governor declares a disaster emergency for 28 counties

4. Dallas-Fort Worth Intl. Airport: 250 flights canceled

5. Lambert Airport, St. Louis: most flights canceled


Sources: Associated Press, Weather Underground, Ameren Services, Kansas Governor's office.

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