PHILADELPHIA — A destructive winter storm left more than a million customers in the dark before barreling into the Northeast on Wednesday, delaying flights and turning the morning rush into the morning slush as communities braced for the worst.
The storm has been blamed for at least 23 deaths, and a glaze of ice and snow caused widespread power failures from the Southern Plains to the East Coast. Authorities said it could be a week before some communities have electricity again.
The storm spread across Maine late Wednesday morning, slowing traffic and closing schools, businesses, courts and government offices.
The National Weather Service said a winter storm warning will remain in effect into Thursday as the snow fell at rates of up to an inch or two an hour with up to 20 inches expected in some parts of the state. Accumulations along the coast were held down by a changeover to sleet and even rain in some areas.
Tree limbs encased in ice tumbled onto roads and crashed onto power lines in hard-hit Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma on Tuesday and overnight. In Arkansas — where ice was 3 inches thick in some places — people huddled next to portable heaters and wood-burning fires as utilities warned electricity may be out for a week or more.
David Stark had an adventurous trip on Interstate 71 to get to work in La Grange in northern Kentucky.
“The roads look clear, but you can’t do over 40 mph,” he said during a stop at a convenience store for gas and food. “There’s a lot of black ice. I slipped and slid everywhere.”
Since the storm began building on Monday, the weather had been blamed for at least six deaths in Texas, four in Arkansas, three in Virginia, six in Missouri, two in Oklahoma, and one each in Indiana and Ohio. Winter storm warnings were in effect from Texas to New England on Wednesday.
Power was being restored to thousands of residents of Oklahoma, which was spared the destruction caused by an ice storm that killed nearly 30 people and darkened a half-million homes and businesses for days about 13 months ago.
But next door in Arkansas, about 300,000 customers lacked power Wednesday morning. At least 470,000 were in the dark in Kentucky, where Pearl Schmidt’s family endured a cold night without power at their Paintsville home.
“We bundled up together on a bed with four blankets. It’s freezing,” she said.
In Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, nearly 300,000 homes and businesses were in the dark as ice and snow coated parts of the states. Ohio’s top Republican lawmaker, Senate President Bill Harris, slipped on ice outside a hotel near the Statehouse in Columbus, broke a leg and missed the governor’s State of the State address Wednesday.
Tracey Ramey of Waynesville, Ohio, a village about 20 miles southeast of Dayton, said her husband left for his job as a snowplow operator late Monday with an overnight bag and hasn’t been able to return. He did call her Wednesday morning to caution her not to go to her data-entry job.
“He said, ‘There’s 2 inches of ice on the road and there’s no way you’re going to make it to work,”’ she said.
Air travelers hunkered down at airports throughout the region. Delays or cancellations were reported at airports including those serving Columbus, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
The snow and sleet abated somewhat in southeastern Pennsylvania as temperatures rose above freezing later in the day. But in northern and central Pennsylvania, snow accumulations could reach 4 to 8 inches. Up to 8 inches was expected in parts of western Pennsylvania.
Cynthia Lahiba of Baltimore walked through the ice and snow about six blocks to her downtown office Wednesday.
“My $65 pair of shoes are going to be ruined. It’s pretty bad out here,” she said.
The storm was already turning to rain in New Jersey by Wednesday morning, creating a soggy commute.
Some parts of Vermont expected 16 inches of snow, and the entire state was under a winter storm warning through early Thursday. Inland areas of Maine expected 20 inches of snow before the storm ends, and snow also fell over New York and Boston, extending commute times.
Maine Gov. John Baldacci ordered state offices in all but the extreme north closed as of 2:30 p.m.
The heavy, blowing snow made travel dangerous with dozens of accidents reported around the state involving vehicles sliding off the road or minor fender benders. No major injuries were reported.
“People are taking it very easy,” Chad Labree, dispatch supervisor at the state police barracks in Orono, said as Wednesday’s evening commute got under way.
“Traffic was double file and going about 10 mph on the Interstate,” said Labree, who could see the highway from an overpass on his way to work Wednesday afternoon.
Some flights into and out of Bangor International Airport were delayed before 5 p.m. Wednesday with some cancellations occurring after that hour.
Bangor Hydro Electric Co. and Central Maine Power Co. also began responding to calls about scattered outages at about 5 p.m.
Forecasters said northwestern Connecticut could get 8 inches of snow, while Hartford and other inland areas could get 6. The National Weather Service expected the snow to turn into rain in the afternoon and evening.
The weather gave President Barack Obama a chance to rib his new hometown on its winter weather wimpiness.
“Can I make a comment that is unrelated to the economy, very quickly?” the new president told reporters at a gathering with business leaders. “And it has to do with Washington. My children’s school was canceled today. Because of what? Some ice?”
The president said he wasn’t the only incredulous one.
“As my children pointed out, in Chicago, school is never canceled,” Obama said to laughter. “In fact, my 7-year-old pointed out that you’d go outside for recess. You wouldn’t even stay indoors. So, I don’t know. We’re going to have to try to apply some flinty Chicago toughness.”
Contributing to this report were Bangor Daily News writer Dawn Gagnon and Associated Press writers Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio; Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla.; Daniel Shea in Little Rock, Ark.; Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky.; Rick Callahan in Indianapolis; Ben Feller in Washington; Ben Greene in Baltimore; Dan Sewell in Cincinnati; and John Raby in Charleston, W.Va.