Winter storm causes 6 deaths, travel chaos

3:30 PM, Dec 26, 2012   |    comments
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Bart Jansen, USA TODAY

At least six people have died in a massive winter storm that carried tornadoes across the South. There were blizzard conditions in the Midwest on Wednesday, and heavy snow moving into the Northeast.

Among the casualties were two passengers killed when their car crossed the center of an Arkansas highway in sleet Wednesday and struck an SUV head-on.

Icy roads were blamed Tuesday for a 21-vehicle pileup in Oklahoma, according to the Highway Patrol there. A 28-year-old woman was killed Tuesday in a crash on a snowy highway near Fairview, Okla. A 76-year-old Wisconsin woman who was a passenger in a car on Interstate 44 in Oklahoma that hit a pickup head-on was killed Tuesday.

At least three tornadoes were confirmed in Texas, and 34 were reported across the South on Tuesday. High winds toppled a tree onto a pickup in the Houston area, killing the driver, and a 53-year-old north Louisiana man was killed when a tree fell onto his house.

The storm is far from over. Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, says the storm is bringing blizzard conditions to the Midwest, heavy winds and rain to the South and heavy snow to the Northeast.

"Snowfall is heaviest in parts of the Midwest, specifically Indiana and Ohio, where you have blizzard conditions -- heavy snow and high winds. "This shield of precipitation will continue moving northward."

Blizzard conditions mean snow and wind at least 35 mph that reduce visibility to a quarter-mile or less.

"We're getting a little bit of everything right now -- we're getting rain, the rain-snow mix, sleet and straight snow," says Lt. Anne Ralston, Ohio Highway Patrol. "No major interstate or road closures. No major crashes."

Indiana State Police say crews are working to free 40 vehicles stuck on state Highway 37 because they couldn't make it up a hill on the slick road. Sgt. Curt Durnil says the vehicles were stuck between Bloomington and Martinsville and could take hours to clear.

A swath of snow 6 inches deep is possible from the upper Ohio Valley; 12 to 18 inches are possible from western New York state to Maine from Wednesday into Thursday, according to the weather service.

"It appears snow will dominate west of the Interstate 95 corridor as far north as Massachusetts before wintry precipitation dominates across all of New Hampshire and Maine," the weather service says.

Widespread showers are expected in the Southeast; winds that swept across Texas and the Deep South on Tuesday were turning their fury on coastal North and South Carolina on Wednesday.

"The Deep South is going to be in cleanup mode today," says Vaccaro of the weather service. "We do currently have a tornado watch for parts of eastern North Carolina and South Carolina."

More than 1,500 airline flights have been canceled during the past 48 hours as storms prevent holiday travelers from returning home after Christmas on one of the busiest days of the year.

The flight cancellations have been widespread, in a box from Chicago to Dallas to Atlanta to New York City. Washington's Dulles airport, for instance, tallied 47 and Reagan National, 29. In Ohio, Cleveland had 45 canceled flights; Columbus, 38; Cincinnati, 29; and Akron, 20. In New York, LaGuardia had 45; JFK, 28; and Newark, 26.

Victoria Wigsmoen, 21, got up early Wednesday to drive through heavy snow to the Indianapolis airport for a trip to Orlando. But her 11 a.m. departure was among the sea of red cancellations on the departure board.

The Indiana University student's new plans for Wednesday night call for watching the Chicago Bulls play the Pacers in Indianapolis.

"At least I can still spend New Year's Eve in Disney," Wigsmoen says. "I was hoping to escape the snow and cold weather! Unfortunately, luck was not on my side."

More than 100,000 customers lost power in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

In Mobile, Ala., wind damaged homes, a high school and a church, and knocked down power lines.

Rick Cauley, his wife, Ashley, and two children were hosting members of both of their families. When the sirens went off, the family headed down the block to take shelter at the athletic field house at Mobile's Murphy High School.

"As luck would have it, that's where the tornado hit," Cauley said. "The pressure dropped and the ears started popping and it got crazy for a second."

Contributing: The Associated Press, Ben Mutzabaugh, Kitty Yancey, The Cincinnati Enquirer and Indianapolis Star.



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