Motorists crawl along Interstate 65 near downtown Indianapolis in the midst of a severe winter storm Wednesday.
CINCINNATI — A powerful winter storm system pounded the nation’s midsection Wednesday and headed toward the Northeast, where people braced for the high winds and heavy snow that disrupted holiday travel, knocked out power to thousands of homes and were blamed in at least six deaths.
Hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed, scores of motorists got stuck on icy roads or slid off into drifts, and blizzard warnings were issued across Indiana and Ohio amid snowy gusts of 30 mph that blanketed roads and windshields, at times causing whiteout conditions.
“The way I’ve been describing it is as a low-end blizzard, but that’s sort of like saying a small Tyrannosaurus rex,” said John Kwiatkowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis. He said the storm’s winds were just high enough to classify the storm as a blizzard, making it one of the strongest snowstorms in years to strike central and southern Indiana.
“It’s ugly out,” said Elizabeth Brinker, 26, in downtown Indianapolis as she hurried to her car after the law firm where she works sent employees home Wednesday morning.
Some 40 vehicles got bogged down trying to make it up a slick hill in central Indiana, and four state snowplows slid off slick roads near Vincennes as snow fell at the rate of 3 inches within an hour in some spots.
Two passengers in a car on a sleet-slickened Arkansas highway were killed Wednesday in a head-on collision, and two people, including a 76-year-old Milwaukee woman, were killed Tuesday on Oklahoma highways. Deaths from wind-toppled trees were reported in Texas and Louisiana. The system that spawned nearly three dozen tornadoes across Gulf Coast states Tuesday was headed to New England and the Eastern Seaboard.
National Guardsmen were called out to help cope with the storm in Indiana and Arkansas.
In Arkansas, Humvees transported medical workers and patients in areas with 10 inches of snow. Gov. Mike Beebe sent out National Guard teams after the storm left 192,000 customers without power Wednesday morning.
The largest utility, Entergy Arkansas, said some people could be without power for as long as a week because of snapped poles and wires after ice coated power lines ahead of 10 inches of snowfall.
Other states to the east also had widely scattered outages and treacherous roads.
Traffic crawled at 25 mph on Interstate 81 in Maryland, where authorities reported scores of accidents.
“We’re going to go down south and get below it (the storm),” said a determined Richard Power, traveling from home in Levittown, N.Y., to Louisville, Ky., in a minivan with his wife, two children and their beagle, Lucky. He said they were well on their way until they hit snow near Harrisburg, Pa., then 15 mph traffic on Interstate 81 at Hagerstown, Md. “We’re going to go as far as we can go. .... If it doesn’t get better, we’re going to just get a hotel.”
About two dozen counties in Indiana and Ohio issued snow emergency travel alerts, urging people to go out on the roads only if necessary.
“People need not to travel,” said Rachel Trevino, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service bureau in Paducah, Ky. “They need to just go where they’re going to be there and stay there.”
Jennifer Miller, 58, was taking a bus Wednesday from Cincinnati to visit family in Columbus.
“I wish this had come yesterday and was gone today,” she said, struggling with a rolling suitcase and three smaller bags on a slushy sidewalk near the station. “I’m glad I don’t have to drive in this.”
More than 900 flights were canceled by midday, according to FlightAware.com.
Snow was blamed for scores of vehicle accidents as far east as Maryland. As the storm moved east, New England state highway departments were treating roads and getting ready to mobilize with snowfall forecasts of a foot or more.
“People are picking up salt and a lot of shovels today,” said Andy Greenwood, an assistant manager at Aubuchon Hardware in Keene, N.H.
In Manchester, N.H., public works officials said plow trucks were ready, as were a variety of emergency notification systems including blinking strobe lights at major intersections, and email, text and social media alerts.
Early indications were that day-after-Christmas mall traffic was down, too, with people holding off in the storm-affected areas on returning that ugly sweater or other unwanted gifts.
“I can’t feel my feet, and the ice is hurting when it hits my face,” said Tracy Flint, a Columbus, Ohio, hairstylist who was trudging to work across a shopping center lot where only a handful of cars were parked. “But it could be worse.”
Behind the storm, Mississippi’s governor declared states of emergency in eight counties with more than 25 people reported injured and 70 homes left damaged.
Cindy Williams, 56, stood near a home in McNeill, Miss., where the front was collapsed into a pile of wood and brick, with a balcony and porch ripped apart. Large Oak trees were uprooted and winds sheared off nearby treetops in a nearby grove. But she was focused on that all the family members from her husband to their grandchildren had escaped harm.
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