Fierce Winter Storm Sweeps Across Midwest

Pedestrians cross a street in downtown Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009, as a winter storm travels through the region. Carousel /images/2009/12/08/image5940082.jpg
AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Last Updated 6:34 p.m. ET

Fierce winds ripped away the roof of a police station, thousands of people lost power and drivers stuck by closed highways settled in to wait as storms swept out of the West to the nation's midsection Tuesday.

Much of the Upper Midwest was covered in deep snow, and strong winds Tuesday night were expected to create blizzard conditions. The storm had already blanketed much of the mountain west and drenched Southern California with rain.

Ice was the problem Tuesday morning in Oklahoma, where Interstate 40 was closed for about 25 miles between Clinton and Elk City. Mitch Dodson, a trucker hauling soda pop out of Durango, Colo., to Virginia, was waylaid at the Travel America plaza near the town of Sayre in western Oklahoma.

"It's just a sheet of ice from Amarillo to here," Dodson said. "It's a disaster."

With travel likely to get worse, officials were warning residents in parts of the west and Midwest to stay close to home.

Planes leaving San Jose, Calif., were being de-iced for what could be a treacherous trip east, reports CBS News Correspondent Dean Reynolds. Flights from Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports were delayed as much as four hours even before the storm hit with chain reaction backups elsewhere in the country. Three hundred flights were canceled at O'Hare alone.

Blizzard warnings were issued for most of Iowa as well as eastern Nebraska, southern Minnesota and southern Wisconsin.

Some schools closed before the worst of the storm was expected to hit so that school buses wouldn't slip on slick roads.

"Anybody traveling tomorrow morning is really taking a huge risk I would say - a risk of being stranded and not having anybody be able to help you for six or 12 hours, probably," Karl Jungbluth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Johnston, Iowa, said Tuesday.

Jungbluth said a "classic, big, deepening winter storm" was affecting more than a dozen states. A foot or more of snow was expected in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph could create snow drifts of 8 to 15 feet.

"Snow and lots of it!" said Rose Jansen, assistant manager at Sparky's One Stop gas station in Schaller, Iowa. "We'll be here, no matter what."

Subzero temperatures caused a scene out of the movie "A Christmas Story," when a boy got his tongue stuck to a metal fence pole. Firefighters in Boise, Idaho, used a glass of warm water to free the boy, who they estimated was about 10 years old. Fire Capt. Bill Tinsley says the boy's tongue was bleeding a little, but he was allowed to continue walking to school.

The weather also brought a film-like feeling for Sharmishtha Jindal, an 18-year-old University of Iowa freshman from Bhopal, India.

"I saw this in the movies and on television, but this is the first experience," Jindal said. "It's very different in the real world."

Heavy rain pounded some parts of the South. More than 4 inches were reported in spots in New Orleans, and flooded traffic slowed morning commutes. The storm also produced high winds and a possible tornado near Lake Pontchartrain, the National Weather Service said.

In Buffalo, N.Y., meteorologists expect the storm to dump 3 or more feet of snow between Wednesday and Saturday in the mainly rural snow belts east of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. They also urged residents to deflate blow-up Santas, warning that wind gusts near 60 mph could sweep away all but the most securely attached holiday decorations.

The storm had hit much of the West on Monday, bringing subzero wind chills in Washington state and heavy snow that closed schools and government offices in Reno, Nev. In the Phoenix area, fierce wind brought down power lines, left four hospitals temporarily without power and created wide outages. Freezing temperatures in Oregon were suspected in one death.

Big rigs were left jackknifed across highways in several states.

And more snow was coming: The National Weather Service said the upper elevations of the Sierra mountains could get up to 3 feet, with up to 4 feet forecast for the mountains of southern Utah.

Two people were killed in traffic accidents blamed on slick conditions in New Mexico. Winds of up to 100 mph were reported on St. Augustin pass between Las Cruces and White Sands Missile Range, and the powerful gusts ripped away the roof of the White Sands Missile Range's police station.

Cold temperatures also were threatening California crops. The chilly weather hit with only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the navel and mandarin orange crops harvested, said Bob Blakely, director of industrial relations for the California Citrus Mutual.

"We've got a lot on the line," said Blakely. "Both of them combined you're probably looking at over a billion dollars in fruit hanging out there on the trees."

"The storm system is really strengthening as it goes, and that's usually a recipe for some heavy snowfall and a lot of wind, and that's what we're watching for," said Mike Welvaert of the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis.

Kent Barnard, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Twin Cities district, said preparations for the storm began well before dawn Tuesday as crews treated curves, bridge decks and other slippery spots with chemicals.

In Santa Fe a power outage affected 4,800 customers.

CBS "Early Show" weather anchor Dave Price in Flagstaff said the mountain town, roughly 6,000 feet above sea level, received a record 20 inches of snow overnight.

Reno schools closed, and many state government workers were told to stay home. Several flights into and out of Reno-Tahoe International Airport were delayed or canceled. Chains or snow tires were required across the region.

"Motorists are going to have to chain up," Trooper Chuck Allen with the Nevada Highway Patrol said. "Otherwise, we end up with a parking lot."

In northern Arizona, state officials closed parts of Interstate 17 and I-40, saying early Tuesday that some stretches of the highways were snow-packed and visibility levels were near zero. Department of Transportation spokesman Rod Wigman advised people to stay home if possible as the brunt of the storm sweeps through.

"When the sun goes down, people need to go home," Wigman said.

In the Flagstaff area, a UPS truck slammed into a barrier wall and lost its trailer near a scenic overlook.

In the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles, a stretch of Interstate 5 - the state's major north-south route - was closed Monday evening due to snow, California Highway Patrol Officer Monica Posada said.

Two more storms, this time from the tropical Pacific, were expected to arrive on Thursday and Saturday.

One of those storms was churning waves up to 50 feet high off Hawaii's beaches, drawing hundreds of people to Oahu's North Shore.

"A large storm over the North Pacific has sent a wave train at us," Robert Ballard, a forecaster for the National Weather Service, said Monday. "People need to stay way away from the shore break and the water if they're going to watch."