Wide-Scale Blizzard Hits A Third Of The U.S

A monstrous winter storm is pounding a huge portion of the country, dumping large amounts of snow, ice and freezing rain from Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas up to New England. Airports are closed and highway travel is treacherous in many parts of the Midwest.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In many parts of America, it's a nasty day out there.

INSKEEP: In fact, an awful lot of America. What makes this blizzard special is the scale. In the middle of the country, people are measuring the ice in inches and the snow fall in feet. Thousands of airline flights have been cancelled, and tens of thousands of people are without power.

MONTAGNE: The only good thing you can say about this storm is that it came with enough warning to let officials prepare.

NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER: At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the crews operating the plows and the other snow removal equipment, they know snow.

Ms. KAREN PRIDE (Spokeswoman, Department of Aviation, Chicago): We have a very experienced team. We have a very dedicated team of people who start training -or retrain in the summer, so that they're prepared by, you know, by the time winter comes around.

SCHAPER: Karen Pride, spokeswoman for Chicago's Department of Aviation, which oversees both O'Hare and the smaller Midway Airport, says these crews are working around the clock.

Ms. PRIDE: Depending on how much snow and how quickly, how heavy the snow is, you know, I mean, these are all things that have to be taken into consideration, as far as the strategy for removing the snow goes.

SCHAPER: Using up-to-the-minute data from forecasters and GPS on their trucks, plows can quickly be redirected to icy runways and snow drifts. But even despite those efforts, the airlines and the FAA late yesterday cancelled all flights and closed the runways at O'Hare and Midway, as conditions just weren't safe for flying.

The Chicago Transit Authority learned something the last time there was a storm of this magnitude: You have to keep the trains rolling more frequently and all night long, says the CEO Rich Rodriguez.

Mr. RICH RODRIGUEZ (CEO, Chicago Transit Authority): CTA trains have snow plow blades attached on the front of all rail cars to clear snow away from the running rail as trains move along the track. Sleet fighters are already out on the system with de-icer to help keep the rails from ice building up on such.

SCHAPER: And Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation tried to get ahead of the storm by doubling up on garbage collections the last few days, so more than 100 garbage trucks could be equipped with plows.

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Thomas Byrne says that allows the city to dispatch 400 plows onto arterial streets.

Mr. THOMAS BYRNE (Commissioner, Streets and Sanitation): Even with all of these trucks, snow that falls at predicted rate will quickly cover the pavement and slow traffic. So our trucks will be out there doing the best job they can, but realize that in these types of conditions, traffic will slow and visibility will be limited.

(Soundbite of strong winds)

SCHAPER: But there are some elements of this storm you really can't do much to prepare for. I'm standing along Chicago's Lake Michigan shoreline, where wind gusts of 40 to 60 miles an hour are pushing huge waves up to 15 feet high, crashing over the ice and snow and flooding portions of Lake Shore Drive. And the blowing and drifting snow is creating white-out conditions, so many drivers can't really see where they're going.

Mr. WILL WINGFIELD (Director, Public Information, Department of Transportation, Indiana): With winds, that spells disaster in two different ways.

SCHAPER: Will Wingfield, of the Indiana Department of Transportation, says crews are fighting the blowing and drifting snow in the northern part of Indiana, and icing conditions and high winds bringing down tree limbs and power lines in central Indiana.

Wingfield says there's a significant swath across central Indiana - and across the entire Midwest, for that matter - where a line between heavy snow and freezing rain produces a miserable, messy mix of snow, rain, sleet and mostly ice.

Mr. WINGFIELD: The slightest change in the storm front can mean a difference between a largely uneventful rain event or, you know, even sometimes significant amounts of snow. And that line is fairly wide for this storm.

SCHAPER: For crews fighting the storm, it's a little like preparing for a blind date: You're never sure what you're going to get until you meet face to face.

Nearly every city from Oklahoma to Michigan and east has its snow plows out, trying to melt the ice and clear the snow. But all of the logistics planning in the world won't help some folks in Muskegon, Michigan. Police there say someone stole several plow blades from private vehicles and off of some county trucks, and those plows that are sorely needed today.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

MONTAGNE: And Australians are bracing themselves for one of the biggest storms in that country's history. Cyclone Yasi hovers an area bigger than Italy. Winds are gusting up to 180 miles per hour. Australian officials issued warnings for a cyclone that could be devastating for the cities and towns along a nearly 200-mile stretch of coast on the northeast of the country. They're expecting a six-foot storm surge and power outages.

In a televised news conference, Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: This is a cyclone of savagery and intensity. People are facing some really dreadful hours in front of them.

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