4:33am

Tue February 1, 2011
Around the Nation

Massive Winter Storm Begins To Howl Across Midwest

Midwesterners accustomed to dealing with snow, sleet and ice readied themselves for a monster winter storm that could be the biggest many cities have seen in years.

Despite dire warnings of a potentially deadly storm predicted to affect a third of the country, some people seemed even a little excited Monday at the prospect of dealing with the kind of weather that has pounded the Northeast in one of that region's most brutal winters. Others headed to stores to pick up everything from snow shovels and backup generators to bottled water and bread as the first flakes and freezing rain began to fall on parts of the region.

"I'm looking forward to it. I'm a schoolteacher, and we'll probably get a snow day — and it'll be the first time in a couple of years," said Katy Berman, 58, of the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, Ill. "It doesn't faze me as long as I'm home."

As the storm began its trek across the Midwest, it brought a bit of everything: ice, sleet and snow — even tornadoes were possible. School districts, universities and legislatures closed; airlines canceled thousands of flights; and residents rushed to gather supplies, anticipating they might have to dig out or hunker down.

"I've never seen a prediction of what have you — rain, snow, ice, whatever — where people reacted so quickly to it," said Jack Runyon, co-owner of Runyon Equipment Rental in Carmel, Ind., where customers snapped up all of the store's small emergency generators.

Cities including St. Louis, Kansas City and Milwaukee could be hardest hit, with expected midweek snowfalls of up to 2 feet and drifts of 5 to 10 feet. Even hardy Chicago could be in for its third-worst blizzard since record-keeping began, with forecasts calling for up to 20 inches of snow in the city and waves whipping off Lake Michigan.

Julie Adolphson of the National Weather Service in Kansas City said this kind of heavy-snow event happens about once a decade. She said the weather service has forecast a blizzard for Kansas City for only the second time in its history.

Residents across Missouri braced for a particularly hazardous mix: up to an inch of ice, followed by 3 to 4 inches of sleet, then perhaps a half-foot of snow or more. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated 600 members of the National Guard.

In St. Louis, customers had lined up by 7 a.m. Monday outside the Edele and Mertz Hardware store, just a few blocks from the Anheuser-Busch brewery, waiting for the store to open. Snow shovels, ice melt and salt were all big sellers.

" 'Freaking out' is a great way of putting it," employee Steve Edele said. "The icing, that's what scares people."

Drivers in several states were already sliding off slick roads even before the worst of the storm had arrived, with deadly accidents reported in Minnesota and Kansas.

With the storm expected to affect a huge swath of the country, the National Weather Service suggested any Green Bay Packers fans planning to drive from Wisconsin to Dallas for the Super Bowl avoid leaving before Wednesday afternoon, when authorities hope to have cleaned up the worst of the mess along the route.

"As long as I have 18 hours, I'm going to get there," said 68-year-old Don Zuidmulder, who planned to fly out Thursday. "I'll crawl if I have to."

In Oklahoma, officials were expecting a foot or more of snow to fall on central and northeast areas before noon Tuesday, with up to 40-mph winds and wind chills below zero.

State highway patrol officials urged those traveling through the state to stop for a couple of days before risking what's being called a life-threatening event.

In neighboring Arkansas, communities anticipated lesser snow totals, but the weather service warned that severe thunderstorms could generate freezing rain, hail and isolated tornadoes.

If the forecasts for Chicago hold true, it would be the city's third-biggest snowstorm, overshadowed only by the 21.6 inches in 1999 and the mother of all Chicago snowstorms, the 23 inches of snow that fell in 1967.

Officials in Chicago — which is holding elections in three weeks — were throwing every resource they have at the storm, mindful of the fact that then-Mayor Michael Bilandic lost his re-election bid in 1979 partly because of his administration's poor response to a similar storm.

"We feel confident that we have enough equipment on the street: 274 trucks, 120 garbage trucks with plows on them," said Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Thomas Byrne. He said plows will keep thoroughfares open even with snow predicted to fall at a rate of 3 inches an hour.

Paula Lawson, a 59-year-old community organizer from suburban Glencoe, said she remembers the big storm in 1967, which "really did stop the world for days."

Will the latest storm do the same?

"If we get 20 inches, maybe," Lawson said at a downtown rail station. "But around here, 12 inches, it doesn't stop us."

After burying the Midwest, the storm was expected to sweep into the Northeast, parts of which already are on track for record snowfall this winter.

With reporting from Dan Verbeck in Kansas City, Michael Cross in Oklahoma City and NPR's David Schaper in Chicago. Material from The Associated Press also was used in this story. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.