Thousands shiver after storm knocks out power

A utility crew works on a snapped power lines in Tulsa, Okla., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007. An ice storm has knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans Stephen Holman, The Associated Press


A utility crew works on a snapped power lines in Tulsa, Okla., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007. An ice storm has knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans Stephen Holman, The Associated Press

By Sean Murphy

OKLAHOMA CITY – Stan Turner awoke Tuesday to find not only was his home without power but an ice-coated tree limb had crashed into his classic Mustang. The only heat available for the house came from a fireplace, a wood-burning chimenea on the porch and a gas stove.

“I’ve been scrounging all the wood I can,” he said. “I’m going to get out there and get the bigger limbs down, but the wet weather is what’s making it so bad.”

Turner was among a million utility customers who were struggling without electricity in the nation’s midsection after a massive storm dropped sleet and freezing rain across much of Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Iowa. The system has been blamed for at least 24 deaths since it developed last weekend.

Glistening, ice-covered roads contributed to many of the deaths. Downed power lines caused dozens of fires in Oklahoma. And then there was the problem of staying warm because officials cautioned that electricity may not be restored for days, if not weeks.

“We have the upstairs fireplace going and the gas burners on the stove,” Turner’s wife, Joanie Wilson, said in the couple’s frigid home. “That’s it for heat. I’m getting the cider ready for later, and the Captain Morgan’s for later, later.”

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The power outage was the worst ever in Oklahoma, with nearly 600,000 homes and businesses without electricity Tuesday. Nearly 350,000 other customers were affected by outages in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois.

Lesley Owczarski, owner of Big Apple Bagels in Ottumwa, Iowa, said the power was on at her shop, but many of her customers weren’t so lucky.

“Most of the places don’t have power so a lot of people have been coming to the bagel shop,” she said. “If they can come in and get warm and have a hot coffee and a latte, why not? I can understand it’s boring sitting at home.”

The storm also caused extensive travel problems. About 560 flights were canceled at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and hundreds of other flights were badly delayed.

In Oklahoma, schools were closed for a second day across most of the state. Classes were also canceled in Kansas, Iowa and Wisconsin, including the Milwaukee district, with 85,000 students.

Officials in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma had declared states of emergency. President Bush declared a federal emergency in Oklahoma on Tuesday, ordering government aid to supplement state and local efforts.

At least 24 deaths in the Midwest, 15 in Oklahoma, have been blamed on frozen conditions that sent cars skidding off highways and caused trees and power lines to snap under the weight of ice.

Tulsa and Oklahoma City each had more than 100 reports of fires since the storm began, mostly from tree limbs crashing into live power lines, authorities said.

Until Tuesday, the volunteer fire department in the small Kansas town of Durham had gone on just two fire runs all year. Within hours, the department rushed to the scene of three weather-related electrical fires.

“I don’t know as we’ve ever run that many fires,” said Fire Chief Pete Sommerfeld, who was without power along with the rest of the town of 110 people.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency rushed 50 industrial generators to Oklahoma for hospitals, water-treatment plants and emergency shelters, and 50 more were on the way. FEMA was also providing blankets, cots and pre-packaged meals.

Most people decided to stay home and bundle up rather than go to shelters.

Eva Mowry and her mother, Madeline Lee, were among dozens of people waiting in line at a Home Depot store in Oklahoma City that was operating on backup power provided by a generator. A sign in front of the store read: “No Generators, Ice Melt, Scrapers, Lamp Oil, Firewood, Kerosene Heaters, Chainsaws.”

The two women stocked up on flashlights, batteries and starter logs for the fireplace.

“This is our first ice storm,” Lee said. “I don’t like it.”

Sonya Kendrick, who spent Monday night at one of several American Red Cross shelters set up in Oklahoma City for people without power, said a tree ripped the electrical box off the side of her house, and she needed a warm place to take her three children until repairs could be made.

“When I got in here yesterday, I was totally distraught. I was like ‘Why me? Why me of all people?’ I look at it this way, too: I’m not the only one,” said Kendrick, 43. “There’s other people here that I got to know in less than two days, literally. All of them have been through the same thing, and everybody here just understands everybody.”

The National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., said the cold air that caused the freezing drizzle in Oklahoma pushed northeast into Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, but a thick layer of ice remained on parked cars, homes and trees. A steady rain that fell Tuesday drenched workers and homeowners who were out clearing wreckage.

“This poor lady we went to had tears in her eyes because her 90-year-old oak tree was just ravaged,” said Tom Moffett, who used a chainsaw to cut branches that fell on his neighbors homes and driveways in Norman.

“This could change the face of Norman, because these trees are part of the charm of the city.”

Paul Nosak, who owns a tree service in Tulsa, estimated it could be up to six months before everything was cleaned up.

“What we have here is a storm of biblical proportions,” Nosak said as his crew demolished a 100-year-old oak tree and sheered off a house’s front porch. “This is a Category 5 hurricane in Oklahoma.”

Associated Press writers Nafeesa Syeed in Des Moines, Iowa, and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.