KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For the second time in a week, a major winter storm paralyzed parts of the nation’s midsection Tuesday, dumping a fresh layer of heavy, wet snow atop cities still choked with piles from the previous system and making travel perilous from the Oklahoma panhandle to the Great Lakes.
The weight of the snow strained power lines and cut electricity to more than 100,000 homes and businesses. At least three deaths were blamed on the blizzard.
The Missouri Department of Transportation issued a rare “no travel” advisory, urging people to stay off highways except in case of a dire emergency. Conditions were so bad that some snowplows slid into ditches, underlining the danger even to well-equipped travelers.
“It’s straight hell. It’s snowing, blowing, drifting, everything,” said Robert Branscecum, a trucker from Campton, Ill., who was hauling Wal-Mart merchandise to Dallas. He had been stranded since Monday evening at Beto Junction, about 80 miles southwest of Kansas City.
“The cars are stuck in the parking lot. Some of the trucks that tried to leave got stuck,” he said. “I’m not leaving anytime soon.”
Up to 10 inches had fallen in and around Kansas City, Mo., by the time the snow tapered off before midday. Mayor Sly James declared a state of emergency.
For a second straight week, schoolchildren, government workers and others caught a break as most schools and office buildings were closed. Hospitals closed outpatient centers and urgent-care clinics.
Although the amount of snow was not unusual for late February, the snow was so heavy it stressed everything it fell on, especially the electrical grid. Power was slowly being restored as the thick clouds moved on.
In the northwest Oklahoma town of Woodward, a person was killed after 15 inches of snow brought down part of a roof. The storm was also blamed for the deaths of two people who were killed in rollover crashes Monday on Interstate 70 in Kansas.
Heavy snow pulled down large trees and caused roofs to cave in at businesses in Belton and Warrensburg, Mo., where 13 inches of snow piled up. In Columbia, a canopy over gas pumps collapsed at a convenience store.
By noon, the storm had arrived in the Great Lakes with a mixture of blowing snow, sleet and frigid rain that disrupted most forms of travel. Airlines canceled almost 500 flights at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports alone.
Elsewhere in Chicago, the heavy weather threatened to hold down voter turnout in a special election to choose the likely replacement for former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. The city deployed extra resources to keep polls accessible. Its full fleet of 284 snowplows was out clearing pavement.
The wintry mix also blew through Iowa, which had been expected to escape any serious snowfall. Parts of the state could now get as much as a foot.
Fueled by a strong low pressure system, the crescent-shaped storm began Sunday in Texas, then headed north. It was expected to drop up to 6 inches of snow on Chicago before crawling east across Michigan toward northern New England.
Schools and major highways in the Texas Panhandle remained closed for a second day Tuesday. Interstate 27 reopened between Amarillo and Lubbock, about 120 miles to the south, but the Texas National Guard was still working to clear much of Interstate 40 from the Oklahoma border to the New Mexico state line.
Some other roads reopened as sunny conditions began to thaw ice and snow-packed surfaces.
Just a day earlier, whiteout conditions had made virtually all Panhandle roads impassable. A hurricane-force gust of 75 mph was recorded in Amarillo, which got 17 inches. The heaviest snowfall was in Follett, Texas, with 21 inches.
In Oklahoma, 600 snowplows and trucks worked to reopen roads.
Because this was the second storm in as many weeks, weary Midwesterners were annoyed that a huge blizzard could so closely follow another major storm.
Climate scientists can’t say that man-made global warming is the cause of individual extreme weather events, but they say climate change in general makes such storms more likely because of what it does to the thermodynamics of the air and water.
Warmer air in general holds more moisture, and when temperatures dance around the freezing mark – cold enough to fall as snow, but warm enough to hold lots of moisture – the storms dump more snow, especially if part of the system has been over unusually warm ocean water.
Since 1960, much of the United States has had twice as many extreme snowstorms as it had in the 60 years before, according to a new study by top scientists that will soon appear in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. But global warming is also shortening the snow season, dramatically reducing spring snow in the Northern Hemisphere, the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University found.
“These storms didn’t just occur in a vacuum. They are fueled by record amounts of moisture in the atmosphere,” Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said Tuesday in an email.
Mann said the unusual warmth and moisture combine with cold air dipping down from the Arctic to produce heavy snow. He said some computer weather models predict the Midwestern storm may break a record for low-pressure, which is how meteorologists measure the strength of a storm.
The back-to-back storms have raised hopes that the moisture might ease the drought conditions that have gripped the Midwest for more than a year. The snowpack now resting on the Plains will help, but it’s no drought-buster, experts say.
“If we get one more storm like this, with widespread 2 inches of moisture, we will continue to chip away at the drought,” said meteorologist Mike Umscheid of the National Weather Service office in Dodge City. “But to claim the drought is over or ending is way too premature.”