Treetops glisten, but storm snarls midwestern holiday
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A fierce Christmas storm dumped snow and ice across the nation's midsection, stranding travelers as highways and airports closed and leaving many to celebrate the holiday just where they were. Some churches decided to cancel Christmas Eve services, while others saw sharply lower attendance.
Meteorologists predicted the slow-moving storm would glaze highways in the East with ice through Christmas night and that gusty thunderstorms would hamper the South. An ice storm warning was issued for parts of the North Carolina mountains, while a wind chill advisory cautioned of temperatures as low as 30 below zero in Montana.
Slippery roads were blamed for at least 18 deaths as the storm made its way across the country from the Southwest. Driving was so treacherous that authorities closed interstates in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas to prevent further collisions.
Parts of at least 10 states were under blizzard warnings, including a line that stretched from North Dakota to Oklahoma, where Gov. Brad Henry declared a state of emergency. The National Weather Service said the storm posed a threat to life and property. Officials warned travelers to stay home, and pack emergency kits if they had to set out.
Jonathan Cannon was spending the night at a Baptist church in Goldsby, Okla. after being stuck for several hours on I-35. He had left Sherman, Texas, a little after noon on Thursday hoping to join his wife in Edmond, Okla. -- a trip that usually takes about three hours.
Cannon, a reporter at the Sherman Herald Democrat, said about 200 people -- plus the dogs many travelers had with them in their cars -- were in the church Thursday night, with more possibly on the way. He wasn't sure if he would be able to finish his journey on Friday.
"This is mine and my wife's first Christmas together, so she's not very excited," he said.
About 100 passengers and the same number of workers were stuck at Oklahoma's largest airport, which closed Thursday afternoon after several inches of snow clogged runways. At least 70 flights were canceled, said Mark Kranenburg, director of Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.
Robert Smith of Denver was forced to cancel plans to fly home on Christmas Eve after visiting family members and friends in Oklahoma City. Smith said he was accustomed to snow storms -- and that none had ever hampered his travel 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."
Other stranded motorists took shelter at a high school gymnasium. Eric Adams, a U.S. Mail contractor from Memphis, Tenn., sought shelter at the Flying J Travel Plaza in Sayre in far western Oklahoma after strong winds caused his tractor-trailer to sway.
The storm knocked out power for thousands in the state. Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co.'s Web site reported that about 6,300 homes and businesses were without power Thursday evening. Andrea Chancellor, a spokeswoman for the Public Service Company of Oklahoma, said almost 4,000 of the company's customers had no power.
Oklahoma City had received 14 inches of snow by Thursday night, breaking a record set back in 1914 of 2.5 inches. Winds gusted to 50 mph in central Kansas, while 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."
The storm put the brakes on last-minute Christmas shopping. A number of ministers in Minnesota's Twin Cities planned to go ahead with services because congregants could walk to church, but many expected diminished attendance at what is typically one of the year's busiest services.
"It may just be the organist, the pastor and a couple of people on snowmobiles," said the Rev. Jon Lindekugel, pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Hutchinson, Minn., about 60 miles west of Minneapolis.
First Lutheran Church in Topeka had about 110 people at one service, compared to more than 400 last year.
Some churches canceled Christmas Eve services altogether.
"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.