Families Flee Freezing, Blacked-Out Homes After Midwest Ice Storm

After three nights in a freezing, powerless home, Jeanetta Plunkett couldn't take any more. She picked up her two young grandchildren and sought refuge at a shelter for people who lost electricity after a huge ice storm.

"We've been at home trying to endure, but it wasn't working," said Plunkett, who feared she was getting a cold and noticed the children had runny noses.

Oklahoma was hit hardest by the storm that encrusted the nation's midsection in ice and was blamed for at least 33 deaths. On Wednesday, the state still had a half million homes and businesses without power, and utility officials warned it could take a week to 10 days to get electricity fully restored.

Iowa's two major utilities, MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy, reported about 19,000 customers still without power late Wednesday night. Most of those were expected to get power back by Thursday morning, officials said.

Dozens of Oklahoma shelters in churches and community centers offered food and a warm place to sleep, especially for the poor, the elderly and families with young children who had nowhere else to go.

After the lights went out Sunday, Plunkett and her grandchildren, ages 6 and 3, left the house to get fast-food fried chicken and to warm up. At night, they huddled in blankets, Plunkett in her reclining chair, and the children on the floor at her feet.

"The children were wrapped up like a taco," she said.

"The scariest part about it was hearing those trees pop and fall down," said Plunkett, 58. "Every time I heard a tree pop, I'd look out the window."

They finally left their working-class neighborhood for a shelter Wednesday.

Billy Weaver, 45, a homeless man, escaped the cold at the City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City.

"I don't know what I'd do if we didn't have a shelter to go to," he said.

Rick Belicek was heading up a chainsaw crew put together by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. Their job was to help elderly people and the disabled whose homes were damaged, or whose driveways were blocked by falling tree limbs.

"There's no way we can get it all done," he said. "We just like to care for people. They're here and they're by themselves, and they're cold and they can't get in and out."

Many of those without power chose to stay home and deal with the frigid conditions.

"I have a gas stove. It won't get the house warm, but it warms up the kitchen a little bit," said Kennette Hughes, who has been without power since Monday. "As long as I'm in bed, I'm pretty warm. I've got a down comforter, and I'm wearing a sweat shirt, sweat pants, turtleneck and socks and leggings."

Forecasters predicted sunshine and temperatures in the 40s for Thursday. But on Wednesday, authorities were still cleaning up broken branches, toppled power lines and slick roads. Another 155,000 utility customers were still blacked out in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

President Bush issued an emergency disaster declaration Wednesday, which authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide financial assistance to help the state clean up.

The 33 deaths included 21 in Oklahoma, four each in Kansas and Missouri, three in Michigan and one in Nebraska.

Most of the fatalities were the result of traffic accidents on icy roads, but carbon monoxide was blamed for the death of an Oklahoma City woman and a northeast Oklahoma man who were trying to heat their homes with generators, authorities said.

More than 70 people have been treated for carbon monoxide poisoning in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Two men and a woman died early Wednesday in a house fire in Oklahoma City that investigators believe was caused by an open-flame heater. In Tulsa, a 68-year-old man died in an apartment blaze caused by open flames for used cooking.

There were also dozens of reports of house fires caused by falling branches knocking live power wires onto homes.

In the Tulsa suburb of Sand Springs, residents piled on blankets, collected branches from lawns for kindling and broke out camping lanterns.

Jack Crawford sat bundled up on his front porch, nursing a cup of lukewarm coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

"I think I'll fire up another one," said Crawford, his trembling hands reaching into his coat for a pack of smokes.

Lanny Gibbs wondered if the power would be restored faster if his neighbors had more political clout.

"I'm hoping there's a senator or an attorney or a doctor that lives here," Gibbs said.