Winter Storm Hits Plains States, Moves to Midwest

The U.S. Plains states are digging out from the year's first big winter storm, which left tens of thousands of people in South and North Dakota without power. The snow also closed sections of Interstate 70, which recently reopened. The storm is now moving to the Midwest.

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In states on the Great Plains, there is no doubt that winter weather has arrived. The season's first widespread snowstorm has closed highways, shut down schools and left tens of thousands of people without electrical power. The storm is blamed for the deaths of at least six people. NPR's Cheryl Corley has the story.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Today has been a day of recovery for stranded travelers and residents from the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle. Snowblowers and plows have been out in force as crews work to clear away snowdrifts as high as eight feet. In South Dakota, the rain, ice and snow rolled into one of the worst storms to hit the eastern part of the state in nearly a decade. Doug Kluck, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, says it's not unusual to have a winter storm in the region at this time of year, but what was odd was the strength of the storm and its winds.

Mr. DOUG KLUCK (Meteorologist, National Weather Service): And the other thing that was unusual about this storm was the immense amount of moisture that was pulled up from the Gulf of Mexico just ahead of the storm, as a matter of fact, which caused a lot of icing to occur.

CORLEY: That ice caused tens of thousands of people throughout the region to lose power. Northwest Energy supplies electricity to South Dakota and Nebraska. Spokesman Tom Glasner(ph) says the snow and ice snapped numerous power lines.

Mr. TOM GLASNER (Spokesperson, Northwest Energy): A couple of the lines did have ice buildup in the circumference of a softball. We build them to last quite a bit, but that's definitely stretching the limit there, especially with the wind.

CORLEY: Otter Tail Power Company is also dealing with the same conditions in the Dakotas and Minnesota. Chris Kling says crews have been able to restore power to about 14,000 customers, but another 4,000 may have to wait longer to have electricity.

Ms. CHRIS KLING (Otter Tail Power Company): I know we'll have a few more towns on today. I think there'll still be a number of people out tonight, for at least one more night, and then we should get another chunk of people back on. But there may be a few who are without power through the end of the week.

CORLEY: The whiteouts caused by blowing snow and the icy road conditions in Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas caused the death of five people. A sixth motorist died in a tornado spun off by the huge storm system in Arkansas. Most of the highways that shut down as a result of the storm have reopened; that includes nearly 400 miles of eastbound Interstate 70 between Colorado and Kansas. In Minnesota, a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 94 between the Dakotas and Minnesota also reopened today. Kevin Smith is with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Mr. KEVIN SMITH (Minnesota Department of Public Safety): People who are traveling in that sector should be advised that it's not going to be perfect out there, and they should, really, just travel at the speeds that the roads, you know, avail themselves to and not try to speed through there too quickly because we've had a lot of spin-outs and vehicles off the road and that kind of thing, which we would expect on our first major snowfall around here.

CORLEY: There had been fear the storm system would bring more snow to the Great Lakes region and hit the Midwest even harder. But meteorologist Doug Kluck says the storm weakened.

Mr. KLUCK: Other than some lingering winds and some light to moderate snowfall, it's probably not going to do a lot more.

CORLEY: Officials in some areas are taking no chances. Shelters remain open in anticipation of more stranded travelers where highways remain snow-packed and slick. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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