Bitter winter hits Midwest

BY SUSAN KIM | Milwaukee, WI | December 11, 2000

A blast of winter snow and bitter cold hit the Midwest this week after comparatively mild winters the last few years.

Blizzard warnings were posted in parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana on Monday. School closings were rampant in those areas, with Iowa schools closed as well after a winter storm warning.

O'Hare Airport canceled hundreds of flights on Monday as the storm bore down on Illinois. Chicago was waiting for the predicted foot of snow with more than 250 snowplows on the streets. Southern Illinois was rattled by thunderstorms Monday morning while freezing rain hit the central portion of the state, leaving a half-inch of ice on the ground at Springfield.

Snow was also expected to sweep into Detroit on Monday.

Southeastern Wisconsin could also receive a foot of snow -- the most since the Blizzard of 1999 dumped 15 inches in the area, causing four deaths.

"The southern half of the state is being hit the hardest, and Milwaukee is supposed to take the worst hit," said Lori Getter, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management. "It's winter in Wisconsin."

Retail stores there reported a shortage of snow blowers. Officials cautioned snowmobilers - a group that welcomes wintry weather -- to be aware that some unfrozen lakes could be hazardous.

Temperatures in the snowiest areas will reach, at the most, 25 degrees, dropping to 10 at nighttime. Wind chill will make the temperature feel like 15 below.

The storm is the worst in about four years for the Midwest, forecasters said, because after several years of temperature-warming La Nina or El Nino, this year neither weather phenomenon is present.

But Wisconsin's temperatures seem like a heat wave compared to the subzero weather in North Dakota. "It's going to get up to seven below today. Cars aren't starting. Gas lines are freezing. We wonder how long the duration will be," said Rob Keller, public affairs officer for the North Dakota National Guard.

The temperatures won't ease up anytime soon, said Daniel Noah, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service based in North Dakota. "They may sneak up on Friday."

Noah added that the winter weather seems worse than usual because the Midwest has enjoyed a winter reprieve for the past few years.

"In the past few years, we've had a combination of El Nino and La Nina, and this year we don't have either," said Noah. "We've only had two winters since 1990 with below-normal temperatures. It seems a lot colder to people because they're no longer used to it."

"This is a little more than what we've had in the last few years but more of our normal winter," agreed Mark Wesley, spokesperson for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

"This is not unusual," said Pam Bright, spokesperson for the Indiana Emergency Management Agency.

But Utah -- the skiers' haven -- has had "more than usual for the month of November," said Paula Ernstrom, spokesperson for the Utah Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management. Salt Lake and Davis counties chalked up another 16 inches this week.

If this winter is "back to normal" for the Midwest, it has a major economic difference from the past, at least in some areas. An increase in the cost of heating oil has many families worried about their winter bills. "I've heard reports that the costs have gone up 30 percent in some areas," said Keller. "In rural areas, costs for fuel are even higher because those residents have to have fuel brought out to them."

The National Weather Service, working with North Dakota emergency management, sponsored a Severe Winter Weather Awareness Week in November, and Keller said he hopes the precautions residents learned then will come to mind now.

"We've emphasized the danger of hypothermia and asked people to check on the elderly. If you fall and sprain an ankle, and you can't move, hypothermia sets in very, very fast."

Kansas City was also seized by bitter cold, with temperatures already colder than any day last winter. On Monday, residents looked at a high of nine degrees. With wind chill, the temperature feels like 30 below.

Snowfall is only seven inches, but "the cold is absolutely terrible," said Joy Moser, spokesperson for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. Moser added that she thought ample warning helped people take the right precautions. "People knew about it. They heard warnings all weekend."

Cheri Baer, a Church World Service disaster resource consultant, said that she was concerned that there will be not only increased deaths related to freezing temperatures this winter but also an increase in fires because more people will be using additional heat resources.

"I said a prayer to have people be very careful it they use additional heat because I know we'll hear of fires this winter," she said. "Also, I know we're going to hear about people freezing to death. We have to take care of the elderly."

Like Keller, Baer was concerned that the rise in fuel would pose hardship to families trying to stay warm. "Churches and other groups are smart enough to know they will have to help people with their heating bills this year," she said.

Even Texas saw freezing temperatures in the northern part of the state. Forecasters said snow was possible Tuesday as far south as El Paso.

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