A snowstorm elbowed its way into the record books as it laid siege to Wichita and much of the rest of Kansas on Thursday, bringing traffic to a virtual standstill.
Overnight snowfall was so heavy that whiteout conditions were being reported Thursday in and near Wichita as the morning commute began – and again later in the day in south-central, western and northern Kansas.
More than 100 traffic accidents had been reported countywide by mid-evening. Even a plane got stuck in the snow at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
“The majority of activity across the state of Kansas has come to a stop,” the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office reported in a statement Thursday.
A rare thundersnow storm dumped several inches of snow on Wichita just before dawn Thursday; as the storm pulled out of the area by evening, the total was 14.2 inches. Only the storm of Jan. 17-18, 1962, delivered more snow: 15 inches.
“It was definitely a major winter storm,” said Jim Caruso, meteorologist for the National Weather Service Wichita. “The snowfall rates were augmented by that thundersnow we got.”
Classes have been called off Friday for the city’s universities and at nearly all public and Catholic schools in Sedgwick, Butler, Harvey and Sumner counties.
City crews expected to have all snow emergency routes and secondary routes cleared by rush hour Friday morning, said Joe Pajor, deputy director of public works and utilities.
The Kansas Department of Transportation and the Kansas Highway Patrol closed I-70 from Salina west to Hays in both directions at 11:30 a.m. Thursday due to the large number of slide-off accidents and limited availability of tow trucks. I-70 was later closed from Colby to Hays.
U.S. 54 was shut down between Pratt and Minneola on Thursday afternoon because of whiteout conditions, state officials said.
National Guardsmen were driving Humvees on I-70 and U.S. 54 looking for stranded drivers as night fell, Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday afternoon.
“If you don’t have to travel, don’t do it,” Brownback stressed during a news conference with other state officials. “We’re not out of this yet.”
The governor said it was important to identify any stranded travelers and get them to shelter before it got dark and temperatures declined, making it more dangerous and more difficult to assist people. Hotel rooms in the Russell and Hays areas quickly filled up, and state officials were monitoring the situation to ensure there was adequate shelter for travelers.
Kiowa County opened a shelter housing 30 people. Franklin and Pratt counties also had shelters ready on stand-by.
Two teams of two National Guard members hit I-70 between Colby and Salina and one team targeted U.S. 54 from Mineola to Pratt, Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli said. More guardsmen stood ready to help if needed, he said. Guardsmen in Humvees will also patrol U.S. 400 from Dodge City to Bucklin, helping motorists.
No fatality accidents had been reported, officials said, but there were several vehicles that slid off the roads, leaving motorists stranded.
Motorists needing help from the Kansas Highway Patrol can dial *47 on their cellphones; drivers on the Kansas Turnpike can dial *KTA.
It was unclear when I-70 and U.S. 54 would reopen, said Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Mike King. He urged people to check the KDOT website or dial 511 for road condition updates.
About 1,000 state workers were working to clear roads in two shifts around the clock, King said. But windy conditions hampered plowing, particularly on ramps leading on and off some major highways, he said.
The snow was so bad early Thursday that police cars and other emergency vehicles were getting stuck around Wichita. The conditions made it challenging for police to respond to emergencies, said police Lt. Doug Nolte.
“We will get there as quick as possible,” Nolte said.
Because of the road conditions, police vehicles have been involved in five minor accidents since Wednesday, he said.
By 8 p.m. Thursday, 130 traffic accidents had been reported in Sedgwick County, a 911 dispatch supervisor said; 20 involved injuries.
Emergency rooms at Via Christi’s three Wichita hospitals on Thursday treated two patients each for slips or falls and snow-shoveling-related injuries, three hurt in sledding accidents and one who had heart trouble while shoveling the snow. None admitted were hurt in traffic accidents, Via Christi spokeswoman Maria Loving added.
The weather caused a second day of problems at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
Valerie Wise of the Wichita Airport Authority said crews have been “working around the clock” since snow started falling Wednesday to keep at least one runway clear.
Almost all flights into and out of Mid-Continent were canceled Thursday, although airport officials were leaving it to the discretion of individual airlines whether arrivals or departures would occur. Thirteen flights departed from Mid-Continent by 6 p.m. Thursday, Wise said; about 33 usually depart on a weekday.
Late Thursday afternoon, a United CRJ jet arriving from Denver got wedged in the snow after the pilot turned onto an uncleared taxiway, Wise said.
The flight, carrying 66 passengers, was scheduled to arrive at 4:15 p.m. It was freed by 6 p.m.
“A lot of people were out there with shovels digging it out," Wise said.
The ramp areas, taxiways and parking lots still need to be cleared of snow Thursday evening, she added.
“Our priority is keeping the runway open,” she said of the airport. “But there is a lot of snow out there and a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Wichita is using private contractors who will add 21 operators and 21 full-size pieces of equipment to the snow removal effort, Pajor said. Crews don’t plow residential streets because it would block driveways and bury cars parked on those streets. Officials are encouraging people to stay off streets if possible.
There have been a couple of instances where plow trucks got stuck, Pajor said.
Snow crews were scheduled to work 12-hour shifts around the clock, at least through Friday morning rush hour, Pajor said. The city has 50 employees per shift and 50 pieces of equipment assigned to the effort, the city said in a news release.
City buses operated on regular routes, but the service was running behind because of the weather issues, and buses made some detours around trouble spots, said Steve Spade, the city’s transit director. Riders can get updates about weather-related detours by going to www.wichitatransit.org.
The city’s paratransit service is making only medically necessary trips.
Most Kansans have hunkered down in their homes, making it easier for snow plows and emergency crews to manage the situation, Brownback said Thursday morning.
“It appears we’ve had a significant reduction in travel, which is great,” Brownback said in a conference call with reporters. “It’s exactly what we needed.”
Roughly 200 homes and businesses scattered across the state lost power, but no widespread power outages were expected, he said.
The biggest problem has been cars sliding off the roads, Brownback said.
“I continue to plead with people: If you don’t have to be out, please don’t get out,” he said.
In a later news release from the adjutant general, Brownback urged those who must travel to pack water, food, blankets, a charged cell phone and other emergency supplies in their vehicles.
The state is expected to spend $2 million to $3 million on de-icing chemicals and overtime for plow truck drivers, said King, the transportation secretary. Average storms cost about $1 million, he said.
Hours of thundersnow beginning shortly after 3 a.m. helped fresh accumulation build rapidly in Wichita, National Weather Service meteorologist Vanessa Pearce said.
“I drove through it and you couldn’t see much … it was coming down so heavy,” she said.
City officials reported that snow fell at the rate of 2 inches an hour between 3 and 6 a.m.
Wichita logged a total of 14.2 inches. Hutchinson had 13.5 inches, western Augusta saw 10 and Great Bend had 11.
The most snow – 18 inches – reported by 8 p.m. Thursday was in Nashville, located in western Kingman County.
Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker, Rick Plumlee and Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle