Thousands Still Powerless in Kansas as Residents Dig Out After Snowstorm

Electricity crews were making progress restoring power Tuesday after a weekend storm left tens of thousands of Kansas homes and businesses without power and closed more than a dozen highways.

The storm blew into Kansas on Thursday and intensified Friday, dumping from 15 to 36 inches of snow across western portions before ending early Sunday.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will fly over portions of western Kansas on Wednesday to survey the damage. She has declared a disaster emergency to free resources to help 44 counties in northwest and southwest Kansas.

Photo Essay: Blizzard Buries the Plains

Members of the Kansas National Guard and the Kansas Highway Patrol were helping the three-member Haskell County Sheriff's Department conduct door-to-door searches Tuesday of rural homes that had been without power for days. With phone lines down across much of the area and rural roads largely impassible, some residents were trapped.

"We've been pretty fortunate," said Lt. Randy Mosher, of the Kansas Highway Patrol, who was helping supervise the searches. "A lot of people are cold and tired of being without electricity, but they're fine."

Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for Kansas Emergency Management, said the guard's Humvees were about the only vehicles capable of traversing some of the snow-packed country roads.

National Guard troops, which were mobilized Sunday, have delivered two generators to emergency shelters and nine to restore power to water and sewage systems. Watson said at least 25 emergency shelters had been set up in western Kansas.

In northwest Kansas, the Civil Air Patrol contributed three planes and the highway patrol offered two helicopters and a fixed-wing plane to a search for stranded motorists, Watson said. On Sunday, the patrol found two stranded vehicles with people inside, and local emergency responders rescued them.

Air crews spotted a number of abandoned vehicles on Monday and Tuesday but there were no people inside them, Watson said.

Counties also conducted their own rescue operations. In Wallace County, where snow drifts of up to 15 feet were reported, deputies and road crews rescued about 40 people — about half from their homes and half from Kansas highways 40 and 27.

"Most of those people rescued off the highway had driven around road-closed barricades," said Sheriff Larry Townsend.

The county also was the scene of the only weather-related death. Townsend said Dale Anderson, 48, a part-time deputy, was found dead Sunday in his Wallace home. He had fallen down the stairs while tending to a generator that was in an enclosed stairway connected to the house. A cause of death was pending.

"Our hearts go out to his family," Townsend said. "He'll be sadly missed."

Townsend said the focus was beginning to shift Tuesday to livestock.

"Our county crews have been able to get many of our ranchers to a lot of their cattle," Townsend said. "And we'll be making another assessment tonight about whether we'll need a hay drop."

Watson said the state also was assessing the needs of ranchers to determine whether they needed help feeding cattle.

Warmer weather was helping road crews and utility workers Tuesday. After portions of more than a dozen roads were closed that the peak of the storm, only westbound lanes of Kansas 96 west of Tribune were closed Tuesday afternoon, said Ron Kaufman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

"We expect warmer weather today and tomorrow and that really should help us clear those roads even more," he said.

Utilities that operate in western Kansas hoped to have power restored to most of their customers by the weekend.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp. spokesman Steve Miller said the six rural electric cooperatives it serves in western Kansas had 15,000 homes and businesses without power Tuesday, down from a high of 22,000.

At the peak of the storm, more than 20,000 Aquila Inc. customers were without power. But only 4,400 homes and businesses remained without power Tuesday, said spokesman Curt Floerchinger.

Midwest Energy had restored power Tuesday to all but 2,000 to 2,500 customers, down from a high of 6,000 outages.

"It's slowly getting better," said Midwest spokesman Bob Helm. "It's still real, real tough out west."

Meanwhile, fire officials were reporting that icy conditions slightly delayed the response to a mobile home fire that killed a woman and child early Saturday about 13 miles east of Garden City.

A neighbor reported the fire at 1:10 a.m., and the house was fully engulfed when firefighters arrived at 1:29 a.m., said Garden City Fire Chief Allen Shelton.

"The response time was only about three minutes slower," Shelton said.

The names of the woman and child were not immediately released, nor was the identity of a man who was seriously injured in the fire and flown to a Wichita hospital. The cause of the fire was under investigation.