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News Wrap: Historic Winter Storm Paralyzes Midwest, Northeast

February 2, 2011 at 4:10 PM EDT
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The great winter storm of 2011 began blasting its way into the Northeast today, leaving the Midwest frozen and buried under the worst snow and ice in many years.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: Much of the nation’s heartland was paralyzed as the enormous storm plowed a 2,000-mile path. The misery may have been worst in Chicago, with nearly two feet of snow overnight, winds gusting up to 50 miles an hour and 13-foot waves on Lake Michigan.

Hundreds of people were stranded all night on the city’s famed Lake Shore Drive after multiple accidents.

WOMAN: Everything’s frozen. Nothing’s moving. I mean, it’s just insane.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even fire trucks and ambulances were stopped in their tracks, and the fire department resorted to using snowmobiles for the first time ever to check on people trapped in cars.

GRANT RAYMOND, Chicago firefighter: It seems super important when it’s like this, because sometimes you can’t get to people at all. You know, like, if it’s a narrow street or they’re a distance down a narrow street, the rigs will never be able to get there.

KWAME HOLMAN: In all, at least 1,500 cars were stuck as the fierce swirling winds sent snow into giant drifts and closed city schools for the first time in 12 years. Roads began to crawl back to life around midday, but Chicago officials still urged caution.

JOSE SANTIAGO, Chicago Office of Emergency Management Agency: Be patient. City crews are working hard to keep up with the storm and clear the snow as fast as possible. If you absolutely must drive, slow down and yield the right of way to emergency vehicles.

KWAME HOLMAN: The storm also grounded all flights at O’Hare Airport, a major hub, and nothing was scheduled to land or depart until Thursday.

Nationwide, flight cancellations topped 5,500 for a second day. And both the numbers and the chaos in airline schedules were expected to rise, as the huge storm reached the East Coast, the nation’s busiest airspace.

Meanwhile, near-whiteout conditions triggered a 15-car pileup Tuesday in Missouri and shut down Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City for the first time in the state’s history.

Adding to the winter woes, hundreds of thousands of people lost power. Utility crews worked overtime in Indiana and several other states. Rolling blackouts were in force across Texas, but officials said Cowboys Stadium, outside Dallas, wouldn’t be affected. The Super Bowl will be played there on Sunday.

In the Northeast, the storm brought rain and ice to Philadelphia this morning. And in New York City, freezing rain and sleet coated sidewalks and streets with nearly an inch of ice. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service between New York and Philadelphia was temporarily suspended. And western Massachusetts braced for even more snow after getting close to a foot on Tuesday.

But there was at least one sign of potential relief for the winter-weary. In Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil’s handlers reported he didn’t see his shadow on this Groundhog Day, the traditional sign of an early spring.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Half-a-world away, a giant storm comparable to Hurricane Katrina blasted northeastern Australia today. Cyclone Yasi barreled ashore in the small resort town of Mission Beach in Queensland state. The storm had winds gusting up to 186 miles an hour, and forecasters predicted up to 28 inches of rain.

We have a report narrated by James Mates of Independent Television News.

JAMES MATES: Australians like to call themselves the lucky country. In Queensland, they are not feeling lucky tonight. The waters from the worst floods in a generation have barely drained away and now this: the worst storm in the country’s history — a Category 5 cyclone, the strongest there is, making landfall across a front 400 miles wide.

For days, people have been urged to leave. Anyone still there is now officially on their own.

ANNA BLIGH, Queensland premier: These are not conditions in which we can send out emergency workers. These are not conditions where you can put up a helicopter to do a winch rescue. All of that is now beyond the realms of possibility.

JAMES MATES: Tens of thousands of people have only been able to evacuate as far as emergency shelters. Where there is still power, people have been talking to us via Skype as they wait for the worst.

JESSE ZELL,
Queensland resident: We decided to stick it out. We have got a strong room in our house. And we’re — you know, we’re just — we’re just hoping for the best. But, you know, you — having not been through those kinds of winds before, you could never predict what’s going to happen, you know, what — what it can take out.

JAMES MATES: Communication is extremely difficult while the storm rages. It will be some time before we know how destructive, how deadly Cyclone Yasi has been.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tropical rains last November submerged parts of Queensland state for months and killed at least 35 people.

In Pakistan, a car bombing killed nine people and wounded 20 others. The bomb exploded at a busy market on the outskirts of Peshawar in the northwest. It’s located on a main road leading to the Afghan border. This was the third major bombing in and around the city in the last week.

President Obama signed documents to implement the New START treaty today. The nuclear arms agreement with Russia will limit each country’s number of strategic warheads. It also allows the two sides to resume inspecting each other’s nuclear arsenals. The treaty will be finalized this weekend when Secretary of State Clinton and the Russian foreign minister exchange ratification documents.

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced plans to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. The toxic chemical is found in rocket fuel, fireworks and explosives. It’s been linked to thyroid problems in pregnant women and young children.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson laid out the agency’s plans at a Senate hearing today.

LISA JACKSON, Environmental Protection Agency administrator: It’s about protecting the health of the between 5 million and 17 million Americans that have perchlorate in the water that they drink. As we look at our regulations for perchlorate, we will look at the feasibility and affordability of treatment systems, the costs and the benefits of potential standards. And, of course, we will make sure our — our approach continues to be based on sound, up-to-date science.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Trace amounts of perchlorate have appeared in more than 150 drinking water sources across 26 states. It may take two years to develop the new standard on how much is safe for human consumption.

Wall Street mostly marked time today after Tuesday’s big gains. The Dow Jones industrial average added one point to close near 12,042. The Nasdaq fell a point to close at 2,750.

Those are some of the day’s major stories.