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OK declared as federal disaster

One of the worst winter snow storms in recent history has shut down much of state.

BY JOHN PAPE | OKLAHOMA CITY, OK | February 2, 2011

"This was one heck of a storm, Ill tell you; it was very intense. It reminded me of white-out conditions Ive seen up in Nebraska and the Dakotas"

—Carey Brooks

As Oklahoma struggled to dig out from under as much as 20 inches of snow dumped on the state by what many are calling the “Groundhog Day Storm,” President Barrack Obama approved Gov. Mary Fallin’s request to declare all of the state’s 77 counties as a federal disaster.

Although the declaration did not specify reimbursement to state and local governments of the response costs, the declaration is expected to be amended to include them.. Those expenses could include such things as personnel overtime costs as well as costs associated with operating shelters and clearing snow and ice covered roads.

Even recovery operations began, the state remained under a statewide declaration of emergency issued by Fallin on Monday.

Fallin spent most of the day in the State Emergency Operations Center, which was activated as the storm approached. Among the agencies working in the EOC were the Salvation Army, Oklahoma Military Department, Oklahoma State Department of Health, American Red Cross, Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Oklahoma Corporation Commission and Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

All state offices in Canadian, Cleveland, Garfield, Lincoln, Logan, McClain, Oklahoma and Pottawatomie counties remained closed Wednesday. Most schools and businesses throughout the state also remained closed due to the hazardous road conditions.

Fallin also activated 140 Oklahoma National Guard troops to patrol a pair of major turnpikes in an effort to rescue motorists still stranded following the blizzard. Using large military vehicles, the Guard was assigned to patrol the Will Rogers Turnpike from Tulsa to the Missouri state line, as well as the H.E. Bailey Turnpike running from Oklahoma City to Lawton.

An untold number of motorists remained stranded since the roads became impassible as the storm bore down on Oklahoma on Tuesday.

Colonel Kerry Pettingill, chief of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol urged motorists to stay home. He said troopers were getting stranded trying to rescue others.

“Many of our emergency responders have become stuck or stranded while attempting to rescue motorists, so it's vitally important for the public to assist our efforts by not getting out and compounding the already difficult task,” Pettingill said.

With 11 of 13 field troops reporting, the highway patrol said it had handled 73 collisions, five with injuries, and more than 500 motorist assists since the storm hit.

Fallin praised the National Guard, highway patrol, Oklahoma Department of Transportation and other first responders for working through blizzard conditions to rescue those caught in the storm.

“The response has just been tremendous,” Fallin said.

She also said it would be several days before things could return to normal and urged residents not to venture out too soon.

“We certainly will have a couple more days to get through this because there is a lot of snow piled up,” the governor said. “Just because the sun's out doesn't mean that we're through some challenging times.”

While the storm dropped near-record amounts of snow across much of the Midwest from Chicago to Dallas, Oklahoma appeared hardest hit. Carey Brooks, a truck driver who lives in the central Oklahoma community of Seminole, said while Sooners were used to getting snow, they were not accustomed to blizzards.

“This was one heck of a storm, I’ll tell you; it was very intense. It reminded me of white-out conditions I’ve seen up in Nebraska and the Dakotas,” Brooks said. “Here in Oklahoma, we get snow, sometimes heavy snow, but not blizzards. We’re just not equipped for it.”

Brooks said he was lucky to make it home just as the storm was hitting.

“I was just glad I didn’t have a trailer behind me. The way the wind was catching my rig, I’d have never made it,” he said. “I think some of these drivers that got caught out on the turnpikes didn’t realize how bad this storm really was.”

Despite the blizzard conditions, only one storm-related death had been reported as of Wednesday. Oklahoma City police said 20-year-old Carissa K. Kelm died near Lake Stanley Draper on the city’s southeast side after she was thrown off a homemade sled being pulled by a pickup truck. The sled veered off the road and threw the woman into a guard rail. She died at the scene.

National Weather Service meteorologist Forrest Mitchell said more than a foot of snow fell at Will Rogers World Airport on Tuesday, setting both a daily and monthly record. The storm also brought the largest single-day snowfall in Oklahoma City’s history since the record-setting 2009 Christmas Eve blizzard dropped 13.5 inches on the city.

Will Rogers World Airport, the largest in Oklahoma, was closed for more than 20 hours, finally reopening around 1 a.m. Wednesday. The state’s other major commercial airport, Tulsa International, remained closed until mid-afternoon Wednesday.

Some Tulsa police officers were forced to patrol in their own vehicles after the snow became too deep for patrol cars to navigate. Officers volunteered their personal four-wheel-drive vehicles to respond to emergency calls, transport other officers to duty stations and rescue stranded motorists.

Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett announced city hall would be open with minimal staffing Wednesday, but urged employees not to take chances getting to work.

"Their safety comes first, so I have encouraged non-emergency employees to take a day of leave rather than come into the office, but we will have a few people in the buildings to take care of business,” Bartlett said.

Heavy snowfall was blamed for the partial collapse of a roof at the Hard Rock Casino in the Tulsa suburb of Catoosa, just 12 miles east of the airport. No injuries were reported when the roof buckled in a portion of the casino, which is operated by the Cherokee Indian Nation.

Casino guests noticed water dripping onto the casino floor shortly before the roof failed. Cherokee Nation personnel said the weight of the snow caused the collapse.

South of the Red River in neighboring Texas another state unaccustomed to severe winter weather the cold weather caused rolling power outages throughout the state.

On Wednesday, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas requested power providers perform “load shedding,” temporarily cutting power for short periods of time to avoid longer-term outages. The need for the load shedding was caused by increased power demands due to the arctic blast.

Calling the demand on the state’s electric grid “unprecedented,” Gov. Rick Perry said emergency managers were making every effort to restore power to all areas of the state as quickly as possible.

"Because of winter weather conditions that have created an unprecedented demand on the state's energy grid, many Texans across our state are experiencing power outages today," Perry said. "Texas power and emergency management experts are working very closely with ERCOT and various utility providers to ensure power is restored as quickly as possible. Until that happens, I urge businesses and residents to conserve electricity to minimize the impact of this event."

ERCOT grid operations asked utilities and transmission providers to implement rolling outages to compensate for a generation shortage due to numerous power plant outages occurring as a result of the extreme weather.

The Texas Public Utility Commission said the rolling blackouts would be limited in duration to between 10-45 minutes, unless equipment trips due to a power surge during the restoration process.

Texas residents were urged to turn off all but essential appliances, lights and other electrical equipment.

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