A deadly storm of ice and snow assaulted the mid-southern United States today, paralyzing Arkansas and Oklahoma with widespread power outages and dangerous, ice-coated roadways.
“It’s really the equivalent of having a nuclear device go off, without the mushroom cloud or radioactivity,” Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told reporters by cellular telephone. “Virtually everything is shut down. We have 11 or 12 counties where every single person has lost power, phone service and water.”
At least 562,000 people had no electricity as a coating of ice up to 2 inches thick toppled trees and snapped power lines from New Mexico to Arkansas.
Police said 16 people had died in weather-related accidents since the storm started in New Mexico on Christmas Day. As the system moved east, it dumped a record 20 inches of snow on northern Texas.
Arkansas, still recovering from a fierce ice storm two weeks ago, appeared hardest hit, with highways closed around the state and 300,000 people left without power. In western Arkansas, newspaper offices closed down for the first time in their history and despite its pledge to defy sleet, snow and dark of night, the U.S. Postal Service suspended mail delivery.
Even the Governor Is Cut Off The devastation in Arkansas was so widespread that Huckabee used his authority as governor to dispatch National Guard troops in all-terrain Humvees to search for people stuck in frozen buildings and disabled vehicles. Huckabee shut down state government Wednesday, extending a state holiday, and asked for federal help to restore electricity.
Even the lights and telephone were out at the triplewide mobile home that serves as the state’s temporary Governor’s Mansion.
“The people of Arkansas are being typically resilient and neighborly during the most trying times we’ve ever faced,” Huckabee said. “Let us all pray for warmer weather and for the safety of those who must travel and work in these very trying conditions.”
Brigades of chainsaw-wielding civilians cleared trees from streets and houses, while many of the displaced headed for makeshift shelters.
Too Cold to Stay, No Way to Leave “The temperature in the house is 50 and dropping, so it’s getting to the point where it’s going to be too cold to stay here,” said Pat O’Connor, stuck along with his family in Little Rock. “But if we can’t get anywhere on the streets, then who knows what we’ll do.”
In Sallisaw, Okla., Opal Harbeston walked 3 miles to a shelter after her power went out Tuesday. The 62-year-old described herself as a tough “country girl.”
“Normally I don’t walk anywhere,” she said as the shelter prepared to serve breakfast Wednesday. “I knew where I could find a nice warm place to stay. It’s just like one big happy family.”
The Little Rock airport reopened this afternoon after being shut down since Monday. At Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City, Jim Williams and his wife, Kimberly, were 80th in line at the TWA counter.
“I’d take Alaska Airlines at this point just to get us somewhere but here,” Williams said.
Hundreds of flights were canceled at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Amarillo International Airport closed Tuesday afternoon after numerous cancellations.
‘Stay Out of Oklahoma’
While Arkansas’ state government closed down for the second time in two weeks because of ice, Oklahoma reopened its state offices. Nonetheless, officials warned residents to stay off treacherous roads that had already claimed three lives.
“Tell everyone to stay out of Oklahoma. We have power outages throughout the state, we have crashes everywhere,” state trooper Brett Wallace told Reuters.
In Tulsa, Okla., city officials put out a plea for more sand and salt to pour on icy roads as supplies are running short.
Michelann Ooten, spokeswoman for the state’s emergency management department, said authorities were shipping water to several towns in southeastern Oklahoma because power outages had knocked out local electricity-driven water systems.
Worst May Have Passed Weather forecasters said the worst of the storm had moved east and turned to rain over Alabama and Mississippi, but that pockets of wintry precipitation persisted in parts of Texas and were expected to move later into Oklahoma and Arkansas.
As the ice and snow tapered off, utility companies said they were pouring thousands of workers into the region to restore electricity.
Airports in the region were shut down during one of the busiest holiday travel periods of the year. American Airlines, which had canceled 738 flights Tuesday at its hub in Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, said another 73 were grounded today.
Weather Services Corp. forecaster Wayne Barnes cautiously predicted milder conditions after the first week of the new year, saying a pocket of warmer air in western Canada could edge across the continent.
But Arctic air kept the Midwest in the deep freeze, with low temperatures in the single digits Fahrenheit, while up to a foot of snow was dumped on Great Lakes communities from Michigan to New York.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.