IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Colossal storm roars across nation

A winter weather colossus roared into the nation's heartland Tuesday, laying down a paralyzing punch of dangerous ice and whiteout snow.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A winter weather colossus roared into the nation's heartland Tuesday, laying down a paralyzing punch of dangerous ice and whiteout snow that served notice from Texas to Maine that the storm billed as the worst in decades could live up to the hype.

Ice-covered streets were deserted in Super Bowl host city Dallas. Whiteouts shut down Oklahoma City and Tulsa. And more was on the way. Chicago expected 2 feet of snow, Indianapolis an inch of ice, and the Northeast still more ice and snow in what's shaping up to be a record winter for the region.

The system that stretched more than 2,000 miles across a third of the country promised to leave in its aftermath a chilly cloak of teeth-chattering cold, with temperatures in the single digits or lower.

The storm held the potential to impact about 100 million people, or one-third of the U.S. population, according to The Weather Channel.

Winds topped 60 mph in Texas. The newspaper in Tulsa, Okla., canceled its print edition for the first time in more than a century. In Chicago, public schools called a snow day for the first time in 12 years, and both major airports gave up on flying until at least Wednesday afternoon.

The storm also led Chicago officials to close the city's busy and iconic Lake Shore Drive after numerous accidents that stranded motorists and buses for several hours. City officials said the move was temporary but that they could have to close it again if high winds push 25-foot waves from nearby Lake Michigan onto the roadway.

Everyone "should brace for a storm that will be remembered for a long time," said Jose Santiago, executive director of the city's office of emergency management.

NBC News reported that a record-breaking 13.6 inches of snow fell at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday. The city's previous record for a single day in February was 11.5 inches on February 18, 1908.

Chicago commuters started fleeing downtown by early afternoon. Bridges across the Chicago River were clogged by 2:30 p.m., and train stations were overwhelmed, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Everyone "should brace for a storm that will be remembered for a long time," said Jose Santiago, executive director of the city's office of emergency management.

Cities across middle America shut down hours ahead of the snow. Scores of schools, colleges and government offices canceled activities or decided not to open at all. Large sections of busy Midwest interstates were closed, and 9,000 flights had been canceled across the nation.

Advice to stay home was followed widely. Thousands of office workers in Chicago's famous downtown Loop district left early to avoid any transit troubles. Pete Donaghue, a 49-year-old commodity trader, missed an early train before catching a 2:35 p.m. ride to suburban Wilmette.

"Big mistake," he said. "I'd be home right now, with my feet up, clicker in hand."

At the city's elegant apartment buildings closest to Lake Michigan, employees weren't fazed by the storm, but they kept an eye on the lakefront nonetheless. The wind was strong enough outside one building's lobby to send the heavy revolving door spinning by itself.

"This is nothing to play with here. This is gale-force wind," doorman Edward Butler said as he peered outside at snow blowing horizontally and in small cyclones.

The management at Butler's building called in extra employees for the storm. They bought the staff dinner and offered to put them up for the night at a nearby hotel, but Butler planned to drive home no matter what.

"If you're a true Chicagoan, you don't back down from this kind of storm." But, he added, "if you don't respect it, you'll pay a price."

In Missouri, more than a foot of snow had fallen by midday, with no end in sight. For the first time in history, the state of Missouri shut down Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City due to a winter storm.

"The roads are just pure white. There's no traffic. Nothing," said Kristi Strait, who was working at Clinton Discount Building Materials in Clinton, Mo.

Meteorologist Jeff Johnson of the National Weather Service in Des Moines said the storm was sure to "cripple transportation for a couple of days." The snow and the wind were a dangerous combination, even in areas where not that much snow was expected.

"You don't want to get caught out in the rural areas in your vehicle in this storm. It's a good night to stay home," he said.

The storm was so bad in Polk County, 200 miles west of St. Louis, that emergency officials requested help from the National Guard because local officials did not have enough vehicles to get the elderly and shut-ins to shelter if the power went out.

In state capitols across the Midwest and East, lawmakers cut short their workweek because of the storm. Normally bustling downtown streets were quiet, too. And many stores were closed, with signs on the windows blaming the weather.

Others didn't let the weather keep them from work. The bakery Chez Monet in downtown Jefferson City was open, adding hot oatmeal for chilled customers. Owner Joan Fairfax said she rode to work without trouble. She wasn't sure about her ride home, but said she could walk if necessary.

"I have never missed a day of work because of weather in 20 years," said Fairfax, 54.

The leading edge of the storm slammed first into Texas and Oklahoma after moving out of the Rockies. The blizzard halted production of the print edition of Wednesday's Tulsa World, marking the first time in the paper's nearly 106-year history that is has not published an edition.

Both of Oklahoma's major airports were closed. Outside Tulsa, at the Hard Rock Casino, the snow caused the partial collapse of a roof, but no injuries were reported.

In Texas, thousands of people lost electricity during the frigid conditions. Utility company Oncor reported nearly 27,000 customers without power statewide, with nearly half of the outages in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

St. Louis-based AmerenUE had 1,100 linemen on standby, some borrowed from companies in other states. Six trailers stocked with wire, replacement lines and other supplies were dispatched to possible trouble spots.

Few immediate outages were reported. But Chip Webb, Ameren's superintendent of reliability support services, expected that to change.

"There is ice on the lines," and it could be there for days, Webb said.

For those who insisted on braving the elements, the risks were many. "If you don't have enough fuel in your vehicle, you can run out, the heat goes out — and people can even freeze to death," said Greg Cohen, executive director of the Roadway Safety Foundation.

The storm was expected to roll into the Northeast on Wednesday, bringing still more snow to a winter-weary region. Towns that have been hit by several blizzards since December feared they wouldn't have anywhere to put more snow.

Ice-coated roads were nearly empty in Dallas, where the few motorists who braved the unfamiliar terrain slowed to a crawl as they passed jack-knifed tractor-trailers on slick highways. The NFL managed to stick to its Super Bowl schedule, holding media activities at Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington as planned.

Green Bay Packers fans Dieter Sturm and Mark Madson postponed plans to drive from Wisconsin to the Super Bowl in a Cadillac convertible, but said they planned to leave Wednesday morning if possible.

"We love driving in the snow," said Sturm, who works making snow for movies and commercials. "We love having the snow fall on top of us. We're from Wisconsin. We can handle that without a problem. The icy roads are another story."

The pair said they have personal heating systems, including clothes dryer hoses laced inside their jackets that rest beneath their chins to keep their "faces from freezing solid," Sturm said.

In Ryan Stratton's house in the northern Oklahoma town of Bartlesville, nine children and nine adults crowded together to play video games, at least as long as the electricity stayed on.

Wild Winter Weather

Slideshow  6 photos

Wild Winter Weather

Click here to view our cartoon slideshow all about this wild winter weather.

The area tends to lose electricity in storms, Stratton said, and that's one reason he invited two other families to join him while waiting for this one to pass. They prepared by stocking up on propane and food, but a power outage would cut out some of the fun.

"We've got Rock Band, a PlayStation 3 in one room, a Wii in another, an old PS2 in another," Stratton said. "And we've got cable. ... It's a good chaos today."