Storm makes holiday travel dangerous across Midwest; churches cancel Christmas Eve services

By Patrick Condon, AP
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Storm turns holiday travel dangerous in Midwest

MINNEAPOLIS — A blustery storm spread snow and ice across the heartland Thursday as Americans rushed to get home for the holidays, grounding flights, stranding drivers on white-knuckle highways and forcing churches to cancel Christmas Eve services.

“I don’t think God wants anyone to get killed or break a hip or break a knee or something,” said the Rev. Joseph Mirowski of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration in Mason City, Iowa, where up to a foot of snow and sleet was expected.

A foot or two of snow was forecast in parts of the Plains and the Midwest by Christmas Day. Blizzard warnings were issued for Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin, and drivers were encouraged to pack emergency kits before setting out during what is normally one of the busiest travel periods of the year.

The storm was also expected to glaze highways in the East with ice on Christmas.

Slippery roads were blamed for at least 18 deaths this week as the slow-moving storm made its way across the country from the Southwest.

The snowstorm also put the brakes on some last-minute Christmas shopping. At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., some shoppers had entire stores to themselves.

“It doesn’t bother me any,” said Steve Burns, who was browsing for shirts and other gifts with his teenage daughter.

High winds blowing snow across icy roads were a concern elsewhere. Interstates were closed in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. Texas Gov. Rick Perry activated military personnel to help drivers. North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven placed additional state troopers and the National Guard on standby.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry declared a statewide state of emergency due to what he described as a “record-breaking storm.” The declaration provides a mechanism for local governments to recover costs through the state’s disaster public assistance program. The state set up shelters in central Oklahoma for motorists stranded overnight and closed all interstate routes and several turnpikes.

The wind gusted to 40 mph in central Kansas, and gusts up to 60 mph were forecast in Oklahoma. Winds gusting at up to 65 mph in Texas drifted the snow as deep as 5 feet in some areas.

“The wind is killer, especially when you’re empty,” trucker Jim Reed said during a stop in Omaha, Neb. “Anything that’s boxed, like a refrigerator trailer like I have, becomes like a giant sail in the wind.”

Tony Glaum of Leavenworth, Kan., was traveling with his wife and daughter to his parents’ home north of Manhattan. He said they were thinking about staying overnight rather than making their usual Christmas Eve trip back home.

Still, he said, he is looking forward to a white Christmas: “I think snow would be pretty nice.”

The storm closed Oklahoma’s biggest airport. Mark Kraneneberg, a spokesman for Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, said there were about 100 stranded passengers and some airport employees were stuck as well.

Robert Smith of Denver was in Oklahoma City visiting family members and friends, and planned to fly home Thursday but had to cancel those plans.

“We are going to wait it out,” he said. “We went to the grocery store to get stuff. We’ve got the generators ready just in case we need to use them.”

Nearly 100 flights from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport were canceled by midday. By late afternoon, though, a spokesman said most flights were getting out. The Oklahoma City airport shut down one of its three runways and canceled nearly 30 flights. Two-hour-plus delays were reported at Houston’s Hobby Airport, though by Thursday evening that was down to 15 minutes or less. Chicago’s O’Hare had hour-long delays and more than 30 cancellations, and Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport canceled most flights Thursday. The weather closed down Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota altogether late Thursday.

The storm knocked out power for thousands of residents in Oklahoma Thursday evening. Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co.’s Web site reported that about 6,300 homes and businesses its serves are without power, while Andrea Chancellor, a spokeswoman for the Public Service Company of Oklahoma, said almost 4,000 of the company’s customers had no power.

The Rev. Roger Claxton canceled Christmas Eve services at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Wabasha, Minn., after the area got at least 8 inches of snow. Claxton feared his congregation’s senior citizens would feel compelled to attend.

“I’d rather have people stay home than do their funerals in a couple weeks,” he said.

The Rev. Mark Kelm told parishioners to stay home if they didn’t feel safe, though he planned to hold services even if he was the only one there at St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church in White Bear Lake, a suburb of St. Paul, Minn.

“If I have to make it on cross-country skis, I’ll be here,” Kelm said. “The best way I can explain it is, it’s just like a pregnant woman — if the baby is coming, the baby is coming. For us, the Christ child is going to be celebrated.”

Karen Scholten said her family would conduct a mini-service at home after the Eagle Grove, Iowa, church she has attended since 1965 canceled its Christmas Eve service for the first time she could recall.

“I’m sure we will read the Christmas story and listen to some Christmas hymns,” she said.

Since Tuesday, icy roads have been blamed for accidents that killed at least seven people in Nebraska, five people in Oklahoma, four in Kansas, one in Minnesota and one near Albuquerque, N.M.

Associated Press Writers Martiga Lohn in Minneapolis, Jean Ortiz and Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines, Iowa, James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D., John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., Rochelle Hines and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City, and Caryn Rousseau and Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.

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