Thousands in several states shiver without power in wake of winter storm; toll reaches 54

Published 7:10 pm Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Thousands of people stuck it out in dark, unheated homes Wednesday and hundreds of others hunkered down in shelters waiting for restoration of electrical service knocked out by the snow and ice storm blamed for 55 dead in nine states.

More than 300,000 homes and businesses in several states were still without electricity Wednesday because of the ice, snow, and high wind that battered an area from Texas to Maine.

At the First Baptist Church in McAlester, Okla., where most of the city’s 18,000 residents have lacked power for four days, residents huddled under blankets and in front of space heaters.

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“If it wasn’t for the shelter, I don’t know where we’d be,” said Tara Guzman, 38, while playing board games with her four children. “We’re tough; we lasted when the power went out until (Monday). We brought mattresses out in the living room and cuddled.”

Freezing temperatures continued Wednesday in Oklahoma, where some 92,000 customers still had no electricity. Little sunshine was expected to help melt the ice until Thursday or Friday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Kevin Brown.

Josh and B.J. Medley elected to stay in their dark home Tuesday, noting they had electrical generators, a gas stove and propane heaters. B.J. Medley also had $100 worth of groceries cooling on her front porch.

“It’s hard to keep milk, because milk freezes and goes bad,” she complained.

A wave of arctic air trailed the storm system, helping to kick off more freezing rain and snow Wednesday in Texas. That same cold air mass also turned the Northeast into a freezer Wednesday, with morning lows of 16 below zero at Caribou, Maine, and 19 above in New York City, ending a lengthy unseasonable warm spell, the National Weather Service reported.

The combination of the temperature and wind in Maine produced wind chills as low as 40 below in Allagash, Frenchville and Greenville. New Hampshire’s 6,288-foot Mount Washington registered a wind chill of 77 below.

Eighty-five shelters across Missouri were expected to accommodate more than 3,600 people Tuesday night, according to the State Emergency Management Agency. About 163,000 homes and businesses still had no electricity.

In Buffalo, Mo. — population 2,800 — nearly all stores, gas stations and restaurants were closed Tuesday.

“There are no services,” Mayor Jerry Hardesty said. “I’ve talked to residents who have lived here 50 years and nobody can remember it ever being this bad.”

The town lost all its power by Saturday. Water towers ran dry Sunday, and water service was restored only late Monday, after the National Guard hooked a generator up to a pumping station.

Fresh snow atop a layer of ice led Texas highway officials to close a 300-mile stretch of Interstate 10 from Fort Stockton to San Antonio on Tuesday, and it remained closed Wednesday.

Joe and Sarah Stokhaug were turned away from two fully booked motels after the highway was closed, and they and at least 50 other motorists ended up in a convention center in Ozona.

“They have air mattresses and cots for everybody — and pizza and doughnuts,” Joe Stokhaug said. “We’ve already made a couple friends here who are from Los Angeles.”

Numerous Texas schools and universities were closed because of the weather Wednesday, along with some local and state government offices.

Elsewhere, about 24,000 customers in Michigan were still blacked out early Wednesday, along with an estimated 11,000 in New York state and 12,000 in New Hampshire.

Some New Hampshire customers might not get electricity until sometime Thursday.

“With thick ice continuing to coat power lines, repairs are taking longer than normal. Ice-coated limbs and branches must be lifted off lines by manually banging ice off the trees,” Martin Murray, spokesman for Public Service Co. of New Hampshire, said in a statement.

Since Friday, the storm system’s waves of freezing rain, sleet and snow have been blamed for at least 20 deaths in Oklahoma, nine in Missouri, eight in Iowa, four each in New York and Michigan, five in Texas, three in Arkansas and one each in Maine and Indiana.