CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Utility companies and road crews prepared for the worst Wednesday as a winter storm barreled into the Northeast, while officials in areas already hit hard by the blast warned it may be days before some shivering communities have electricity again.
The storm has been blamed for at least 19 deaths, shuttered government offices and kept kids home from dozens of schools from the Southern plains to the East Coast. With more than a foot of snow forecast for New Hampshire, the Legislature canceled Wednesday's sessions. In Louisville, Ky., the mayor delayed opening government offices until 10 a.m. and urged businesses to follow suit.
Tree limbs encased in ice tumbled onto roads and crashed onto power lines in hard-hit Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma, keeping thousands without power. In Arkansas — where ice in some places was 3 inches thick — people huddled next to portable heaters and wood-burning fires as utilities warned electricity may be out for days.
"We fully expect this to be one of the largest outages we've ever had," said Mel Coleman, CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative in Salem. "Right now, we're just hoping it's days and not weeks."
Ice storms overnight in West Virginia knocked out power to thousands more. American Electric Power reported more than 40,000 outages early Wednesday. Many other utilities struggled to keep up as ice accumulated on power lines and tree branches.
"Lines are still breaking," said John Campbell, the operations chief for Missouri's State Emergency Management Agency. "All the reports we are getting is they are losing the battle right now just because precipitation is still falling."
In Kentucky, transportation cabinet workers struggled throughout the night to clear debris from impassable roads as rain and freezing rain continued to fall across the state. Widespread outages continued into the morning.
Duke Energy called for reinforcements to keep up with power demands in Ohio, where some parts of the state were expected to receive anywhere from 6 inches to a foot of snow. Southern Ohio could get three-quarters of an inch of freezing rain that could solidify.
Winter storm warnings were posted for Wednesday from Arkansas to Maine, while ice storm warnings continued for parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Philadelphia could be coated in up to a half-inch of ice.
Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry declared a statewide emergency Monday. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear did the same Tuesday in his state, where ice up to 1.5 inches thick weighed down tree limbs Tuesday and caused them to crash onto roadways.
"You hear the popping — it sounded like gunfire — and it's limbs from trees breaking," said Hopkins County, Ky., Judge-Executive Donald Carroll, who was among those with no power.
On Tuesday, West Virginia state offices shut down early after a 6-inch snowfall and forecasts of freezing rain and sleet, Arkansas state government offices opened two hours late, and all but essential state workers in Oklahoma were told to stay home.
Road crews in some states had a hard time keeping up with the pace of falling snow.
"The Division of Highways is knocking their socks off trying to keep the roads sort of clear," said Paul Howard, director of operations for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Hundreds of public schools, colleges and universities in several states had called off classes Tuesday. Students were to be kept home again Wednesday in parts of West Virginia, a day after all 55 counties closed schools.
"Playing in the snow is pretty much the thing to do today," said Sarah Bonham, a student at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.
Since the storm began building on Monday, the weather had been blamed for five deaths in Texas, three in Arkansas, three in Virginia, five in Missouri, two in Oklahoma and one in Indiana.
In Charleston, the Postal Service asked resid