Thousands still without power in southern Missouri

ST. LOUIS | More than 100,000 homes and businesses in southern Missouri were without power Wednesday — and many could remain dark for days to come — after a two-day winter storm dumped snow, sleet and ice over much of the state.

Six deaths were blamed on the weather — five in accidents on slick roads and one case of hypothermia. Thousands of schools were closed around the state. And thousands of residents were trying to get through the cold weather without lights or heat.

As of Wednesday night, utilities reported about 117,000 homes and businesses still without electricity, mainly south of Interstate 44 and in the Bootheel region. The count had risen during the day after the Missouri Public Utilities Association reported about 25,000 outages — the first numbers it had provided to the State Emergency Management Agency.

Whole communities were without electricity by midday Wednesday, and officials at power companies said it could be next week before all the lights — and heat — are back on.

"In the Bootheel area it's hard to find anyone with power," said Jim McCarty, spokesman for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. The organization reported 63,500 outages Wednesday morning, including 30,000 in the Poplar Bluff area, 11,500 around West Plains and 10,000 in the Sikeston area. By late Wednesday, the number had dropped to about 57,000, according to SEMA.

Gov. Jay Nixon mobilized the Missouri National Guard to help residents in the southern part of the state. He said guardsmen will help ensure that places such as hospitals, nursing homes and water treatment facilities continue to function.

AmerenUE had 1,800 contractors, including hundreds borrowed from utility companies in other states, trying to restore power to about 35,000 customers, most of them in the Bootheel. The St. Louis-based utility said it could be five days before power is completely restored.

The winter storm began Monday, paused briefly, then hit in full force on Tuesday. The St. Louis area was blanketed with 7 inches of snow, said meteorologist Gary Schmocker of the National Weather Service.

But southern Missouri had it much worse. Farmington had 7 inches of accumulation — about half of it snow and half sleet.

Farther south, ice was the biggest problem. Schmocker said many areas near the Arkansas border got an inch or more of ice. With temperatures topping out in the 20s on Wednesday and not reaching above freezing until Thursday afternoon, that ice was lingering on power lines and trees.

AmerenUE officials said hundreds of wires and poles have been downed by the ice. Interstate 55 near Sikeston was closed for a time late Tuesday because downed power lines blocked the roadway.

McCarty, of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, said the sandy soil of the Bootheel simply couldn't handle the weight of the ice on power lines and poles. He estimated that more than 1,000 poles were down.

Susie Stonner of the State Emergency Management Agency said 87 percent of Mississippi County was without power. She said 94 percent of New Madrid County was powerless. Stoddard, Pemiscot and Scott counties were also hard hit.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 28 shelters were operating. Generators were being used to operate the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston.

Power companies urged residents to stay away from downed poles and lines because they could still be carrying electricity.

In Boonville, 46-year-old Greg Gerling was found dead of hypothermia Wednesday morning in a wooded area. Police say Gerling was found without a coat or shoes. His mother said she believed he suffered a seizure that left him disoriented before he ventured outside. Gerling was in a car accident when he was 17 that left him prone to seizures.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol said all five traffic fatalities on Monday occurred in central or southern Missouri. Timothy Upton, 46, of Webb City, died when his sport utility vehicle slid off a Jasper County road two miles west of Joplin. In Christian County, the patrol said Paula Meyer, 39, was killed when the vehicle she was riding in ran off an ice-covered road near Rogersville.

In St. Francois County, Mallory Hicks, 18, of Bonne, Terre died when her car slid off the road, struck a tree and overturned. Edward McComb, 51, of Jefferson City, died when his vehicle went off the right side of U.S. 54 in Miller County. Deanna Cullers, 44, of Neosho, was ejected from her vehicle and died when she lost control on U.S. 71 and overturned in a median.

In neighboring Oklahoma, Renard J. Johnson Jr., a sophomore running back from Missouri Southern State University, died in a weather-related crash Monday. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said the Tulsa, Okla., native, died when his SUV slid out of control on I-44 in northeastern Oklahoma and into the path of a tractor-trailer.

Icy conditions forced the closure of 25 state-maintained roads.

In St. Louis, hundreds of schools were closed and the morning commute was messy for those who ventured out. The Missouri Department of Transportation encouraged commuters on Wednesday to delay their drive in, giving crews more time to clear roads.

The weather also forced postponement of a men's basketball game between Missouri State and Southern Illinois, which had been scheduled to be played in Carbondale, Ill. The game was moved to 8 p.m. Thursday.

Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau said it was canceling classes again Thursday at all its campuses.

The National Weather Service expects temperatures to begin moderating Thursday, with highs into the 30s. Highs should reach well into the 40s in southern Missouri Saturday and Sunday.

"We'll finally get a lot of melting during the weekend," Schmocker said.