Heavy snow hits Kan., shuts down state government

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

TOPEKA, Kansas (AP) — Kansas government offices will be closed Wednesday, and legislators have canceled their work for a second consecutive day, because of heavy snowfall that has shuttered schools and caused slick driving conditions across much of the state.

Gov. Sam Brownback announced late Tuesday that state offices would again be closed in the Topeka area, keeping all but essential personnel at home. The governor said snow, strong wind and frigid temperatures were creating significant challenges in keeping roads and highways clear.

Come Wednesday, he said, “we could be in a more treacherous situation.”

The storm, which has already been blamed for a fatal accident in southeastern Kansas, also prompted legislative leaders to cancel all of their Wednesday meetings at the Statehouse.

The heaviest snow had moved by Tuesday afternoon into northeast Kansas, where it was expected to persist into the overnight hours. As much as a foot of snow was forecast in Topeka.

The Kansas Highway Patrol said the driver of a southbound car on U.S. 69 south of Pittsburg went out of control and swerved into the northbound lane, where an oncoming car hit it on the side. A passenger in the first car, Helen Prater, 67, of Parsons, died, as did the only person in the second car, Judith Harvey, 59, of Pittsburg, the patrol said.

Though the patrol said no precipitation was falling at the time, the Kansas Department of Transportation described the highway as partly packed with snow and ice.

Some of the higher snowfall amounts were reported across portions of south-central and central Kansas. Hutchinson reported 9 inches, as did much of McPherson County. Mount Hope had 10 inches.

Elsewhere in the state, snow accumulations were far more modest. Southeast Kansas had got just 1 to 3 inches of snow. Out in western Kansas, accumulations generally ranged from 3 to 6 inches.

“We are looking at a prolonged period of cold, and we are going to have a few more shots at some light snow as we get into Wednesday night and Thursday,” said Andy Kleinsasser, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Wichita. “We are going to have a little more snow as well on Friday night.”

The northern half of the state was forecast to have wind chill temperatures of 15 to 25 below zero throughout Wednesday, with actual daytime temperature of 5 to 10 degrees. It is not forecast to warm up above freezing until Tuesday of next week.

The Kansas Highway Patrol, which was working numerous vehicle slide-offs, discouraged motorists from traveling due to slick roads and whiteout conditions.

Highway Patrol Maj. John Eichkorn said in one incident Tuesday afternoon on Interstate 635 in the Kansas City area, a motorist struck a Highway Patrol car, and it had to be towed. Eichkorn said the trooper was outside the car, assisting another motorist and no one was injured.

In Topeka, the Department of Transportation said a semi-trailer hit one of its plowing trucks on Interstate 70, spilling 180 gallons of diesel fuel and temporarily closing a stretch of the eastbound lanes.

Wichita officials warned residents even before the storm hit that they planned to put road crews on 12-hour shifts, but the city had only enough salt and sand to treat emergency routes once.

“They are not putting anything; there is nothing on the streets. They are not even removing snow,” said Wichita resident Emira Palacios. “None of those streets had salt.”

Despite the dangerous roads, Palacios said she had to go to her tax preparer to do her taxes Tuesday because would be leaving later this week for eastern Europe for an extended period.

So she drove slowly, but complained it was tough to get out of a parking space or to make a turn, and she couldn’t even see the edge of the sidewalks.

“It is a little scary,” she said of the roads in Wichita. “It is hard to see sometimes.”

Wichita Mid-Continent Airport had numerous flight cancellations, said airport spokeswoman Valerie Wise.

In northeast Kansas, Atchison rancher Ron Estes fed his cattle earlier than usual Tuesday before the heavy snows came. By early afternoon there was already 4 to 5 inches on the ground at his place and it was still snowing. Once the snow stops, he plans to put down dry straw for his livestock to lie down in.

“The cold weather will bother us more than anything,” Estes said.

In Topeka, Brownback hopped aboard a Kansas Department of Transportation plowing truck to observe snow-removal work on Interstate 70. The governor was accompanying senior equipment operator Allen Ansberry on a 17-mile stretch of I-70 from mid-Topeka to its exit for the small town of Maple Hill.

Brownback later issued a disaster declaration for the state so that it can move personnel and equipment more easily. And he called out 36 Kansas National Guard troops, nine four-member teams that will help transport emergency and medical personnel who can’t navigate snow-packed roads and rescue stranded motorists.

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