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Historic winter storm batters country

Snow weight collapses buildings, forces evacuations in New England while coating the Deep South

BY JOHN PAPE | HOUSTON, TX | February 3, 2011

The massive winter storm that began in the Midwest on Tuesday continued to dominate the weather across much of the nation, bringing heavy snowfall across the Northeast while leaving the Deep South covered in ice.

Highways and airports across the nation were experiencing closures and delays, snarling transportation. More than 18,000 flights had been canceled since the storm began.


The story in the northeast was snow, and lots of it. Despite repeated warnings not to allow snow to accumulate on roofs, dozens of collapses were reported as structures gave way under the weight of the heavy, moisture-laden snowfall.

Authorities in Middletown, Conn. blamed snow accumulation on the roof for the collapse of the third floor of an office building Thursday morning. Two workers had been in the building, but managed to escape just before the roof gave way. No one was injured.

Acting Middletown Fire Marshal Al Santostefano said the third story of the building came down, scattering bricks and debris across Main Street and snapping off two trees. He described the street as looking “like a bomb scene.”

Wednesday night, about 40 people were evacuated from a Middletown apartment complex over fears of a possible collapse after cracks appeared in apartment walls. A building inspector called to the scene determined the Middletown Ridge apartment complex was structurally sound and residents were allowed back inside.

Days of heavy snow also triggered a number of building and roof collapses in Massachusetts. Around 9 a.m. Thursday, a large auto shop in the Boston suburb or Chelsea collapsed. Firefighters combed the debris for possible victims, but no one was found and no injuries were reported. Several neighboring buildings also had to be evacuated following the cave-in.

In Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, an abandoned building collapsed Wednesday night, while in Lincoln, just east of the Boston metro area, a shopping center was closed after part of its roof buckled under the weight of accumulated snow.

Additionally, an airplane hangar near Boston gave way, damaging a number of aircraft.

Boston area public works authorities struggled to remove massive amounts of snow, with several communities establishing “snow dumps” to collect the buildup. Since cleared snow contains contaminants such as salt, motor oil, spilled gasoline and other potentially-toxic materials, environmental laws prohibit the dumping of the snow in areas where it could harm the environment.

“You have sand and salt that are used on the roadways,” Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Ed Coletta said. “You can also have debris, perhaps shopping carts in places like East Boston and the city of Boston, you have parking savers that sometimes get swept up into the snow. You don’t want that kind of debris being put into the harbor or being put into waterways.”

In some communities like Brookline, the city’s snow dump was nearing capacity, according to Public Works Commissioner Andrew Pappastergion. He called this winter’s snowfall “unusual circumstances.”

“We’re not half way through the winter, so the potential for getting over 100 inches of snow here is quite real. So quite frankly, what are you going to do with all that snow?” Pappastergion said. “It’s a real public safety issue that we’ve got to get it up off certain streets (but) we just don’t have the room.”

In addition to Massachusetts and Connecticut, roof collapses were also reported in Rhode Island and New York. On Long Island, a gas station canopy came down, narrowly missing at least six customers who were pumping gas. In upstate New York, the roof of a dairy barn collapsed, trapping a number of cows inside.

Built-up snow on the roof of the University of Connecticut’s hockey rink caused school officials to close the facility until it could be inspected. The university hoped to be able to reopen the rink in time for a scheduled game on Saturday.

Deep South

The Deep South also felt the wrath of the winter storm, with much of the area coated with snow, ice, freezing rain or a combination of wintry mix. Ice was reported on roadways across much of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, with the storm system expected to move across Georgia and the Carolinas overnight.

Mississippi Emergency Management Director Mike Womack urged residents to be prepared for hazardous driving conditions and possible power outages.

“Our biggest concern is that some icing will occur on Mississippi roads, power lines and trees,” Womack said. “This means we could experience some dangerous driving conditions along with power outages. I hope everybody takes time to make sure their disaster supply kit is fully stocked in case they do lose power for an extended period of time.”

Residents as far south as the Mississippi Gulf Coast were reporting sleet and freezing rain by Thursday afternoon, triggering the opening of a cold weather shelter for residents whose homes were not equipped to handle the unusually cold weather. The American Red Cross opened the cold weather shelter tonight at the Lutheran of the Pines Church in Waveland.

In Louisiana, state troopers were working closely with the state department of transportation to monitor road conditions as the storm dropped ice and snow across much of the Bayou State. Capt. Tom Madden, commander of Louisiana State Police Troop G in the Shreveport area, urged motorists to stay home.

“We highly recommend that motorists stay off of the roadways until the storm passes and driving conditions improve. However, motorists who absolutely have to travel during these anticipated weather conditions are strongly encouraged to buckle up, slow down and refrain from distracted driving to ensure safe travel for all,” Madden said.

Troopers also reminded drivers to be prepared for uncertain driving conditions by not using cruise control in icy conditions, allowing ample time to reach destinations, allowing extra space between vehicles and keeping headlights on. Motorists venturing out onto roadways were also encouraged to carry a survival kit including emergency first aid supplies, blankets, jumper cables, high-energy or dehydrated foods, a flashlight with extra batteries, an extra cell phone battery, emergency flares and bottled water.


Houston began closing schools and businesses as early as midday Thursday. The city, where Monday’s temperatures were in the high 70s, is unaccustomed to wintry weather, and any hint of snow, sleet or freezing rain essentially shuts down the city of four million.


Dallas continued to dig out from under the heavy snow that fell across the Metroplex Tuesday and Wednesday. The snowfall caused problems for Super Bowl XLV organizers struggling to keep week-long pre-game activities on track.

On Tuesday, crews from the Texas Department of Transportation were called in to sand roads leading to Cowboys Stadium for the big game’s annual media day. The heavy snowfall caused the collapse of a giant tent set up inside the Cotton Bowl meant to house Super Bowl-related events.

The tent was scheduled to house three nights of concerts featuring such acts as Duran Duran and the Village People. Organizers said they would try to rebuild the tent in time to salvage some of the musical events scheduled for the pre-Super Bowl “XLV Party.”

The good news in Texas was that Thursday brought an end to rolling statewide blackouts triggered by record-setting power demands. 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 uncontrolled outages. The need for the load shedding was caused by increased power demands brought on by the arctic blast.

Late Thursday afternoon, ERCOT CEO Trip Doggett cancelled emergency procedures that began early Wednesday morning.

The peak demand Wednesday morning was 55,460 MW, which did not surpass the winter record set Wednesday evening between 7 - 8 p.m.

Doggett credited power conservation efforts with easing the potential electric crisis.

“We are very appreciative of the sacrifices of those who were without power during the rotating outages, and we also appreciate the conservation efforts by consumers during this emergency situation, as well as the load resources in our demand response programs,” Doggett said.

Doggett also praised ERCOT personnel for their quick action in averting a possible catastrophic power grid failure.

“I also am very proud of the great work by the ERCOT operators in handling what could have been a disastrous situation for the entire state if they had not taken the quick action necessary to preserve the security of the grid,” he said.

Still, Doggett said, electricity customers should continue to reduce power usage wherever possible.

“With continued cold temperatures and snow predicted across the state, we ask that everyone continue to conserve their electricity usage until temperatures moderate,” Doggett said.


In hard-hit Oklahoma, President Barack Obama declared all of the state’s 77 counties as federal disaster areas.

Even as Oklahomans continued to struggle with the winter blast that set snowfall records across much of the state, the storm claimed more lives.

At least two people died and as many as six others were rescued Thursday morning after an SUV lost control on an Interstate 44 bridge and plunged into the Spring River. The exact number of the dead and injured was still uncertain hours after crash.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said the vehicle, a Chevrolet Avalanche, veered off the bridge and plunged more than 80 feet into the frozen river. According to the patrol, two people died. Earlier, Ottawa County Sheriff Terry Durborow said there were three fatalities.

The number of people in the vehicle, which was at least five and could have been as many as eight, also remained uncertain Thursday afternoon.

The accident happened at about 6:30 a.m., less than nine hours after one of two westbound lanes of Interstate 44 was reopened for traffic. The highway had been impassable Tuesday because of the blizzard conditions brought on by the storm.

More than 20 inches of snow fell in the area, which was near the community of Miami, north of Tulsa.

Even as the record-setting storm slowly moved out of the area, only a brief interval was expected before another winter storm moves across the Midwest early next week.

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