As Oklahomans continue to slowly dig out of 20 inches of snow, sleet and ice that shut down major interstates and forced the closure of airports, businesses and schools, law enforcement agencies are warning of the slog ahead, with roads slickening up again as temperatures fell into the single digits overnight.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol discouraged travel in Tulsa, Rogers, Creek and Okmulgee counties, where road conditions were listed as hazardous. All highways and city streets in hard-hit northeastern Oklahoma were deemed impassable because of numerous vehicles stuck in ditches.
Interstate 44 – a major route from the Midwest to the West – reopened Wednesday, after the National Guard rescued stranded motorists out of cars stuck in snow drifts and jackknifed semis that littered the critical roadway.
“As far as progress, it’s very slow going out there,” said Kenna Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. “We’re still asking drivers to stay inside.” By Wednesday afternoon, National Guard troops in Humvees had plucked more than 130 stranded travelers from snowpacked I-44 and other roads. Several drivers ventured out Wednesday, too, and a line of motorists trying to navigate the clogged interstate stretched from Catoosa to downtown Tulsa.
“We are slowly but surely getting our roads opened back up,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said. “There are still challenges with the exit ramps, the on ramps to our highways, certainly some challenges with our city streets and our parking lots. The public needs to be aware that it’s still very cold outside, and they’re still at risk of getting stranded in the snow and getting stuck for hours out in the cold,” she said.
President Barack Obama granted an emergency declaration request from Fallin late Wednesday, paving the way for federal assistance to counties needing help to deal with the storm’s aftermath.
Even as skies cleared after the blizzard, temperatures plummeted to single-digits and below, and one woman was killed in a sledding accident. The storm is part of a system more than 2,000 miles long that barreled through the nation’s midsection on its way to the Northeast, leaving vast swaths from Chicago to New York coated in snow and ice.
Bill Wood said several truckers who pulled off I-44 before the storm hit on Tuesday ended up stranded at his Western Motel in Vinita.
“Nobody could get back out onto the highway, and the little diner down the street was closed,” Wood said. “So we made a big pot of chili and a big pot of stew and fed some people.”
Wood said most of the stranded motorists ventured back onto the interstate by Wednesday afternoon, even though transportation officials were strongly discouraging travel while workers were still clearing the roadways.
“They’re starting to move some now,” Wood said.
In southeast Oklahoma City, Carissa Kelm, 20, was killed in a sledding accident. Police said Kelm was being pulled behind a truck when she slid into a metal guard rail near Lake Stanley Draper. She died at the scene.
Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City reopened early on Feb. 3 after being closed for about 16 hours, according to airport spokeswoman Karen Carney. The main runway at Tulsa International Airport also opened in the afternoon.
Fearing power outages because of ice accumulations and high winds, the Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered 102 industrial-sized generators to power public facilities such as water treatment plants. FEMA has also sent water, meals, blankets and cots.
The U.S. Northern Command also said Wednesday that the Defense Department has designated the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant and two other military installations as support bases to help distribute supplies and equipment.
The weather was so bad the Tulsa World halted production of its print edition through Friday – marking three days in a row it would not print an edition. Tulsa World publisher Robert E. Lorton III said he wanted to make sure employees and their families were safe as they dealt with the bad weather.
Associated Press reporters Ken Miller, Sean Murphy and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City and Murray Evans in Moore, Okla. contributed to this story.