Midwest swaddled in blanket of snow; travel tough
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Blinding snow, at times accompanied by thunder and lightning, bombarded much of the nation’s midsection Thursday, causing whiteout conditions, shutting down large swaths of interstate highways and forcing schools, businesses and even state legislatures to close.
Kansas was the epicenter of the winter storm, with parts of the state buried under 14 inches of powdery snow, but winter storm warnings stretched from eastern Colorado through Illinois. Freezing rain and sleet were forecast for southern Missouri, southern Illinois and Arkansas. St. Louis received all of the above — a treacherous mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain.
Several accidents were blamed on icy and slushy roadways, and two people died Wednesday. Most schools in Kansas and Missouri, and many in neighboring states, were closed. Legislatures shut down in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
“Thundersnow” rumbled through Kansas and Missouri earlier Thursday. National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said that’s the result of an unstable air mass, much like a thunderstorm.
“Instead of pouring rain, it’s pouring snow,” Truett said. And pouring was a sound description, with snow falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour or more in some spots.
Topeka got 3 inches of snow in one 30-minute period, leaving medical center worker Jennifer Carlock to dread the drive home.
“It came on fast,” Carlock said as she shoveled around her car. “We’re going to test out traction control on the way home.”
Snow totals passed the foot mark in many places: Monarch Pass, Colo., had 17½ inches, Hutchinson, Kan., 14 inches and Wichita, Kan., 13 inches. A few places in far northern Oklahoma saw between 10 to 13½ inches of snow. The National Weather Service said up to 18 inches of snow were possible in central Kansas.
With that in mind, Kansas transportation officials — and even the governor — urged people to simply stay home.
Drivers were particularly warned away from the Kansas Turnpike, which had whiteout conditions. Interstate 70 was also snow-packed, and a 200-mile stretch was closed between Salina and Colby.
“If you don’t have to get out, just really, please, don’t do it,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said.
But some people came down with cabin fever, like Jennifer McCoy of Wichita. She loaded her nine children — ages 6 months to 16 years — in a van for lunch at Applebee’s.
“I was going crazy, they were so whiny,” McCoy said, adding they were going to build an igloo after.
Just south of Wichita near the small community of Clearwater, Scott Van Allen had already shoveled the sidewalks and was on his tractor clearing the driveway of the 10 inches of snow. For once, he didn’t mind the task.
“I kind of enjoyed it this time,” he said. “We were certainly needing the moisture terribly.”
The storm brought some relief to a region of the country that has been engulfed in the worst drought in decades. Climatologists say 12 inches of snow is equivalent to about 1 inch of rain, depending on the density of the snow.
Vance Ehmke, a wheat farmer near Healy, Kan., said the nearly foot of snow was “what we have been praying for.”
“The big question is, ‘Is the drought broke?’ ” Ehmke asked.
Near Edwardsville, Ill., farmer Mike Campbell called the snow — or any precipitation — a blessing after a bone-dry growing season in 2012. He hopes it is a good omen for the spring.
“The corn was just a disaster,” Campbell said of 2012.
In Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service planned to take advantage of the snow to burn piles of dead trees on federal land.
Near the Nebraska-Kansas border, as much as 8 inches fell overnight, while western Nebraska saw about half of that, National Weather Service forecaster Shawn Jacobs said. Areas in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle also had up to 8 inches of snow. And Arkansas saw a mix of precipitation — a combination of hail, sleet and freezing rain in some place, 6 inches of snow in others.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency Thursday morning. Kansas City International Airport shut down by midmorning; more than 320 flights were canceled at Lambert Airport in St. Louis. Traffic throughout the state was snarled by hundreds of accidents and vehicles in ditches.
The Community Blood Center of Greater Kansas City put out an urgent call for blood after the storm forced the organization to close its six donation centers and halt blood drives. It said the storm has caused it to lose two full days’ supply, and it now has less than one day’s worth on hand.
The University of Missouri canceled classes for one of the few times in its 174-year history. At a nearby Wal-Mart, some students passed the ice scrapers and snow melt, heading directly to the aisles containing sleds and alcohol.
“This isn’t our usual Thursday noon routine,” Lauren Ottenger, a senior economics major from Denver, said as she stockpiled supplies.
Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist for Accuweather, said the storm will push off into the Great Lakes and central Appalachians, and freezing rain could make it as far east and south as North Carolina. He also said a “spin-off” storm was expected to create heavy snow in New England on Saturday, and could push Boston to a February record.
Accuweather said that by the time the storm dies out, at least 24 states will be affected.
In Connecticut, Biden urges action on gun control
DANBURY, Conn. (AP) — Speaking at a conference on gun violence a dozen miles from the scene of the Connecticut school massacre, Vice President Joe Biden tried to rally support Thursday for the Obama administration’s gun control proposals.
Biden said the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown fundamentally altered the debate over gun control.
“America has changed on this issue,” Biden said. “There is a moral price to be paid for inaction.”
Biden advocated a series of proposals, including universal background checks for gun owners, a ban on many military-style weapons and a limit on the size of magazines. He said the measures would save lives though he said there was no guarantee they would prevent all mass shootings.
“Fewer children will die,” Biden said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who organized the conference with two other members of the state’s congressional delegation, said those measures are achievable. He said the Newtown shooting dramatically changed the prospects for gun control.
“Newtown has transformed America, and we need to build on that sense of urgency going forward,” Blumenthal said. “Preventing gun violence was thought to be untouchable politically two months ago. That unspeakable horror has given us unstoppable momentum.”
Also Thursday, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced that he wants to immediately ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, require background checks for the transfer of firearms and expand the state’s assault weapons ban. He has expressed frustration that the state legislature has not acted more quickly to form a response to the Newtown tragedy.
Other speakers urged Congress to honor the memories of the victims with strong action. Chris and Lynn McDonnell, whose 7-year-old daughter Grace was among the 26 people killed at Sandy Hook, spoke earlier at the conference.
“We ask our representatives to look into their hearts and remember the 26 beautiful lives we lost and pass meaningful laws to help prevent this from happening again,” Lynn McDonnell said, sparking a standing ovation.
The conference at Western Connecticut State University is to push President Barack Obama’s gun control proposals.
The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed his mother at their Newtown home before going to the school and slaughtering 20 children and six adults. He committed suicide as police arrived.
Malloy, Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, state police Capt. Dale Hourigan and the mayors of Bridgeport and Hartford participated, along with other experts in the fields of mental health, law enforcement and education.
Gun makers and lobbyists weren’t invited to participate in the conference, but Blumenthal said gun rights advocates will have opportunities in hearings and other forums to express their points of view.
Tests: Water in LA hotel tank won’t cause illness
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Water tested from a downtown Los Angeles hotel tank where a Canadian tourist’s body was found this week didn’t contain any live bacteria that would cause illness, a county health official said Thursday.
Tuesday’s discovery of 21-year-old Elisa Lam’s body wedged into a water cistern atop the Cecil Hotel called into question the safety of the hotel’s water.
Although county health officials issued a do-not drink order, the results that came back Thursday indicated the water was safe from a “microbiological standpoint,” said Angelo Bellomo, the county’s director of environmental health.
“We can’t say what the quality of the water was prior to the samples,” taken on Tuesday, Bellomo said. “We can only say that the water met the standard at the time it was sampled.”
Guest complaints about low water pressure prompted a maintenance worker to make the gruesome discovery.
The cause of Lam’s death has yet to be determined, but police have called her death suspicious. An autopsy was scheduled for Thursday.
Before she died, hotel surveillance footage showed her inside an elevator pushing buttons and sticking her head out the doors, looking in both directions.
Lam, of Vancouver, British Columbia, traveled alone to Los Angeles on Jan. 26 and was last seen five days later by workers at the 600-room hotel near Skid Row. She intended to travel to Santa Cruz, about 350 miles north of Los Angeles.