Heavy snow testing crews, commuters in Wichita area

Traffic comes to a standstill on Kellogg near the Seneca exit at 9:40 a.m. Feb. 20.
Traffic comes to a standstill on Kellogg near the Seneca exit at 9:40 a.m. Feb. 20.

The second wave of a potent winter storm early Thursday promises to keep city and state crews working feverishly to stay ahead of a wet, slushy snow that already has made travel difficult in the metropolitan area.

Forecasters say the heaviest band of snow could deliver another 4 to 8 inches to Wichita by 9 a.m., hoisting the storm’s total to a foot or more.

“Snow will be falling heavy at times, and we may see some sleet mixing in with that,” AccuWeather meteorologist Andy Mussoline said. “The morning commute is going to be a mess.”

Mussoline said it wouldn’t be out of the question for parts of the city to record 14 inches of snow by the time the storm moves out of the area.

“When you start getting storm totals of a foot of snow for Wichita, that’s pretty special,” he said.

That hasn’t happened since 1971, according to the local branch of the National Weather Service.

A winter storm warning is in effect until Thursday evening, with more than 16 inches of snow predicted for north-central Kansas.

The winter storm has prompted Gov. Sam Brownback to close Kansas state government from Thursday morning through Friday morning. Legislative leaders announced earlier Wednesday it would not be in session Thursday in Topeka. Sedgwick County District Court will be closed Thursday.

Nearly all public and private schools in the Wichita area are closed Thursday. Local colleges and universities, including Wichita State University, Newman University and Friends University, also shut down due to the weather.

The National Weather Service is now predicting about a foot of snow for Wichita by the time the storm ends Thursday. But totals could climb higher than that, agency meteorologist Robb Lawson said, particularly because nearly 51/2 inches had already fallen by shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday.

“It’s just going to keep adding up. The heaviest will come through by 3 a.m. and noon,” agency meteorologist Jim Caruso said Wednesday evening.

Brownback signed an emergency declaration for all 105 Kansas counties. This will allow state agencies to assist local governments as needed, his office said.

Clearing roads

Joe Pajor, deputy director of public works for Wichita, said the city has a full snow emergency operation under way that will remain in place through at least Thursday night.

Wichita officials said they moved into a full-scale plowing operation about noon after 36 hours of pre-treating city streets. That will remain the emphasis going forward after the National Weather Service predicted that more snow than originally predicted could fall in Wichita, said Ben Nelson of the city’s public works department.

One hundred employees driving 100 pieces of equipment are splitting 12-hour shifts while working 24 snow emergency routes, primarily the city’s high volume arterials. Crews are applying salt and sand the length of those routes, and plowing where appropriate, Pajor said. It takes eight to 24 hours to reach all those routes, depending on how much plowing is involved.

It’s the same story on state highways, said Tom Hein, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

“We continue to plow our roads,” he said. “We treated roads yesterday before the storm hit, and we went out early this morning and did some retreating.”

Hein said Wichita drivers “need to accept that they can’t drive normal speed.”

“If you don’t need to travel, don’t,” he said. “This looks like a two-day storm, so many will need to travel home and go back to work, but beyond that, stay home.”

Numerous accidents

The Emergency Accident Reporting Plan is in effect for all of Sedgwick County, where numerous accidents were reported on elevated roadways. A person involved in an accident that doesn’t involve injuries or alcohol may go to the Wichita police’s website at and fill out and accident reporting form.

Wichita police had responded to about 300 accidents, including 21 involving injuries, by 9:15 p.m. Wednesday at Sedgwick County dispatch supervisor said.

Elevated roads are particularly treacherous, Lt. Doug Nolte said.

“If you don’t have to go out,” he said, “we’re asking people to stay off the roads.”

He said people should also expect response delays to 911 calls because of the increase of such calls.

“We’ll get there as quickly as possible,” Nolte said.

By late evening, Via Christi Hospitals on St. Francis and Harry treated 22 people hurt in traffic accidents and eight injured from slips and falls. All were treated and released, hospital spokeswoman Roz Hutchinson said.

Other problems

The Wichita Fire Department also warned residents to be careful in using candles, generators and fireplaces in case of a power outage.

Capt. Stuart Bevis also said it was important for residents to remember what appliances were on when the power went off, so they can check that appliance when power is restored.

“Every time we have one of these outages there is a fire from a stove being left on,” he said.

Numerous departing and arriving flights were canceled Wednesday at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport, according to the airport website. But runways were being plowed, airport officials said, and some flights were still operating Wednesday.

Some local businesses also shut down operations following Wednesday’s snow; Beechcraft canceled second and third shifts and is expected to decide the fate of Thursday shifts by 3 a.m.

Across Kansas

The state Emergency Operations Center activated at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday and will operate on a 24-hour basis until further notice, Angee Morgan, deputy director of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, said in a statement. Morgan urged residents to stay home if at all possible until the storm passes.

Blizzard conditions were reported in Oakley in northwest Kansas late Wednesday morning. Visibility was down to one block in Oakley, and perhaps 100 feet in rural Wallace County, according to the Goodland branch of the weather service.

Despite the problems it is causing, the winter storm is bringing much needed moisture to parched farmland.

Jerry McReynolds was out in the snow Wednesday putting out more hay and straw for his newborn calves after being up all night calving. A dusting of white blanketed the calves and their mother cows out in the field.

A blizzard brings a little extra work at calving, but Diane McReynolds said the moisture will help their winter wheat, pastures and ponds that dried up in the drought.

“In the city you hear they don’t want the snow and that sort of thing, and I am thinking, `Yes, we do’ and they don’t realize that we need it,” she said.

“We have to have it or their food cost in the grocery store is going to go very high. We have to have this. We pray a lot for it.”

Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle; the Associated Press

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