Snowstorm smothers West

January 29, 2008 5:48:22 PM PST
A powerful storm system pounded a large swath of the nation's midsection on Tuesday, spawning everything from heavy snow and numbing cold to hail and possible tornadoes, and forecasters warned more could be on the way.

Thousands of people lost power, and some government offices, schools and highways closed because of snow. Avalanche warnings were issued for some Western mountainous regions.

Authorities received phone text messages from at least two of three snowmobilers lost in the mountains west of Denver on Tuesday but weren't sure whether the third missing man was with them.

Summit County sheriff's spokeswoman Paulette Horr said searchers believed they were closing in on the men's location but were having trouble deciphering the shorthand language used in the messages.

"They're really close," Horr said.

Search efforts were delayed by bad weather and avalanche danger, Horr said.

About 3 feet of snow has fallen in the area since Sunday morning, said Kyle Fredin of the National Weather Service. Snow began to taper off Tuesday, but up to a foot more was expected before the weather clears up by the weekend, Fredin said.

The system also dragged bitterly cold air across the northern Plains, with the National Weather Service reporting a midday temperature of minus 24 at Glasgow, Mont. North Dakota registered wind chill factors of minus 54 early Tuesday at Garrison, with an actual low of minus 24 at Williston.

"Now's when you need to have your winter survival kit," North Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Aaron Hummel said.

The Weather Service posted heavy snow warnings for parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, with a blizzard warning for the Snowy Range area in southern Wyoming.

Heavy snow Monday pummeled mountain areas from Washington state to northern Arizona as two storms converged, one from hard-hit California and another from the Gulf of Alaska, meteorologists said.

"It's very unusual," said Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center in the central Idaho town of Ketchum. "Typically the storm is not this widespread."

Those storms were followed Tuesday by a third storm that threatened up to 20 inches of snow in Idaho's mountains during the night and into Wednesday, said Jay Breidenbach at the National Weather Service office in Boise.

A fourth storm was on the way. "By Thursday, the next storm will be right on our doorstep. This is quite a storm system," Breidenbach said.

The roofs of several businesses collapsed under the weight of snow Monday in northern Idaho, while avalanches forced the evacuation of dozens of homes. There were no injuries.

The cold air and wind gusting as high as 70 mph headed into the Midwest, where fog created problems for air travel Tuesday in Chicago. About 200 flights had been canceled by afternoon at O'Hare Airport, said Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Karen Pride. Midway Airport reported a few delays of up to 45 minutes and minor cancellations.

Powerful winds and blowing snow were expected to cause near whiteout conditions in the Chicago area Tuesday evening, with gusts around 50 mph, the National Weather Service said.

Temperatures were expected to drop from Tuesday highs in the 40s to about zero overnight. In anticipation, some central Illinois schools canceled Wednesday classes.

The National Weather Service reported an unconfirmed tornado touchdown near Okawville, Ill. The high winds damaged roofs in several communities, including Nashville, Ill., where a corner of the roof at Nashville Community High School peeled off. No injuries were reported.

In Cape Girardeau County, Mo., winds as high as 70 mph and dime-size hail were reported Tuesday, and the county was under a tornado warning. Two unconfirmed funnel clouds were reported, said Dick Knaup, the county's emergency management director. Some small structures were reportedly flattened, probably by straight-line winds, he said.

In the snow farther west, Interstate 90, Washington's main east-west artery, was closed at Snoqualmie Pass on Tuesday because of high avalanche danger. Several highways also were closed in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming.

In Oregon, two snowmobilers were rescued Monday after spending two nights in the Wallowa Mountains after getting trapped by storms. Authorities said the two were well clothed and equipped, with survival gear, matches and an avalanche beacon.

The threat of flooding as heavy snow melted brought an emergency declaration on the Navajo reservation sprawling across parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda in Denver; Sophia Tareen and Michael Tarm in Chicago; Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho; and Arthur H. Rotstein in Tucson, Ariz.