Wind chills of -50, snow imperil Midwest

Thursday, January 7, 2010 - 12:26pm

DES MOINES, IOWA– Snow was piled so high in Iowa that drivers couldn't see across intersections and a North Dakota snowblower repair shop was overwhelmed with business as heavy snow and wind chills as low as 52 below zero blasted much of the Midwest on Thursday.

Frigid weather also gripped the South, where a rare cold snap was expected to bring snow and ice Thursday to states from South Carolina to Louisiana. Forecasters said wind chills could drop to near zero at night in some areas.

In Bowbells, in northwestern North Dakota, the wind chill hit 52-below zero Thursday morning.

"The air freezes your nostrils, your eyes water and your chest burns from breathing — and that's just going from the house to your vehicle," said Jane Tetrault, the Burke County deputy auditor.

Her vehicle started, but the tires were frozen.

"It was bump, bump, bump all the way to work with the flat spots on my tires," Tetrault said. "It was a pretty rough ride."

Other parts of the Midwest also had dangerously cold wind chills, including negative 40 in parts of South Dakota and minus 27 in northeast Nebraska, according to the National Weather Service. Equally disturbing chills were expected overnight Friday.

An additional 10 inches of snow was expected in Iowa, already buried by more than 2 feet of snow in December, while up to 9 inches could fall in southeast North Dakota that forecasters warned would create hazardous zero-visibility driving conditions. Wind gusts of 30 miles per hour were expected in Illinois — along with a foot of snow — while large drifts were anticipated in Nebraska and Iowa.

Joe Dietrich said he had to turn away dozens of customers this week from his snowblower repair shop in Bismarck, N.D.

"My building is only so big and I can only take so many," Dietrich said.

The weather hasn't let up since sweeping into the eastern U.S. earlier this week. Five straight days of double-digit subzero low temperatures, including negative 19, were recorded by the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb.

"It's brutally cold, definitely brutal," meteorologist Tony Zaleski said.

Several recent deaths have been blamed on the cold. An 88-year-old woman died of hypothermia in her unheated Chicago home, an Alzheimer's sufferer died after wandering into his yard in Nashville, Tenn., and a homeless man was found dead in a tent in South Carolina, authorities said. Kansas City police said a man involved in a multi-car pileup Wednesday died after jumping a barrier wall in the dark, apparently to avoid sliding cars, and falling about 80 feet.

Slick roads were blamed for scores of accidents. In Indiana, a driver was reported killed in a crash with a school bus near Delphi on Thursday. In Iowa, a driver died Wednesday after slamming into the back of a semitrailer that had slowed for an accident near Des Moines.

In preparation for worsening conditions, more than 500 flights were grounded at Chicago's airports. The Chicago Department of Aviation reported more than 400 canceled flights at O'Hare International Airport and more than 100 canceled flights at Midway International Airport. In Atlanta, Delta Air Lines canceled nearly 200 flights scheduled to leave after 5 p.m. Thursday in anticipation of snow. Frost on planes' wings delayed seven early flights in Tampa, Fla.

Just one day into the 2010 legislative session, the Missouri Senate canceled its Thursday session because of weather. The House planned only a technical session, which allows bills to be processed without the attention of most lawmakers.

Freeze warnings covered nearly all of Florida with temperatures expected to drop into the 20s. Iguanas were seen falling out of trees; experts say the cold-blooded reptiles become immobilized and lose their grip when the temperature falls into the 40s or below.

Schools in parts of Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia canceled classes because of the weather. Major roads were closed in South Dakota, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia.

Salt had no effect on the Twin Cities' ice-rutted streets, and deep snow left over from a Christmas storm had hardened into rock-solid blocks. The conditions helped business at Roger's Master Collision, an auto-body repair shop in Plymouth, Minn.

"A lot of people sliding on the ice, then hitting the snowbanks. They're frozen up pretty hard," said store manager Kirk Suchomel, estimating the shop is averaging 15 repair estimates a day. "I'm sure we're going to stay busy."

In Iowa, officials in Des Moines warned that a $3 million annual snow removal budget would likely be exhausted with this week's storm. Public Works Director Bill Stowe said the city would tap a $6 million road maintenance fund to cover snow clearing for the rest of the season. Snow that had been plowed into tall piles at intersections was set to be dumped into a lake.

"It can be a half-million dollar operation, depending on the amount of snow," Stowe said.

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