Powerful storm paralyzes much of Midwest


DETROIT - The only sign of holiday cheer at Detroit International Airport yesterday morning came on those all-too-rare moments when the public-address system crackled with news of a flight landing or taking off.

That would spark a hurrah that rippled through the terminal, because it meant that some lucky travelers, at last, were getting where they wanted to be for Christmas.

Nationwide, many more were stuck.

A powerful storm ripped across the Midwest and as far south as the Texas panhandle Wednesday night and into yesterday. Twelve people were killed in weather-related traffic accidents; Arkansas, Ohio and Oklahoma reported the most fatalities.

The storm dumped up to 2 feet of snow. A few cities - among them, Paducah, Ky., and Evansville, Ind. - got more snow in a day than they usually get in a year. Highways were snarled, driveways blocked, cars buried. Last-minute shoppers were out of luck. Malls closed early, or didn't open at all.

In southern Indiana, thousands of motorists were stuck for up to 14 hours as a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 64 turned into an icebound parking lot, with traffic not moving all night. The annual Holidazzle Parade in Minneapolis was canceled yesterday because of extreme cold, with a wind chill of minus-35 degrees expected by nightfall.

In central Ohio, more than 300,000 people were without power - and without much hope of getting it back in time to prepare Christmas Eve dinner.

"We may just have to eat potato chips," said Mara Klopfer, a real estate agent in New Albany.

A bit farther south, just outside Cincinnati, Sharon Siepel awoke to a treacherous layer cake: 6 inches of snow topped by thick ice topped by another 6 inches of snow. Only her 2-year- old could make it more than a few steps out the front door. Everyone else sank thigh-deep.

"The kids are having a ball," she said.

In Detroit, Wally Stelf paced a terminal packed with grouchy travelers, wondering if the storm was a sign from on high. He had been planning to propose to his girlfriend in Phoenix this weekend. Now he had time to think about it. Perhaps too much time.

"Maybe I need to go get a beer," he decided.

"There's got to be a better way to do this," groaned Terrance Geri, who was expected in Dallas for a family holiday party. "Maybe we should all just take the train next year."

By yesterday afternoon, the air and ground congestion in the Midwest had eased as the storm swept east and began pounding New England with heavy rain. But some areas were still impassable. Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan declared an emergency in the southern part of the state and urged residents to stay off the roads so that the state police and National Guard could clear away stranded vehicles.

The weather today is expected to be clear across much of the country, other than a few rain showers in the Northwest and over the Gulf Coast.

"Nothing Rudolph's nose can't get him through," said meteorologist Tom Carlson of Weather Central Inc. in Madison, Wis. Except for the biting cold settling in across the upper Midwest, Christmas Day looks good, too, Carlson said.

But for millions slammed by the worst of the midweek storm, the promise of a nice weekend was small consolation.

In Florence, Ky., Matt Gallaher was still stuck in Straus Tobacconist yesterday afternoon, 24 hours after he had clocked in for work.

"We tried to dig our cars out, but after about 15 minutes we were like, to heck with it, let's go fix some coffee," Gallaher said. Luckily, he had a few bags of groceries in the car; dinner was a can of Chef Boyardee.

In the decorated-to-the-hilt town of Santa Claus, Ind., Becky Heim also was stranded at work, in a local inn called Santa's Lodge. Unsure when she'd make it home to her three children, Heim was trying to look on the bright side.

"It's really pretty to be at Santa's Lodge with all this snow," she said. "But it's a lot of snow."

In the small Texas panhandle town of Perryton, Cindy Kennedy said she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen a white Christmas. About an inch of powdery snow had accumulated, she said, enough to frost the trees and lift holiday spirits.

"It's so peaceful and clean," Kennedy said. "It does make it feel a little more like Christmas."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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