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Blizzard Turns Wrath On Michigan Snow Topples Trees, Leaving Many In Dark

Tue., Oct. 28, 1997, midnight

The autumn blizzard that buried the Rockies and the Plains left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity Monday after trees that hadn’t lost their leaves yet trapped the heavy snow and collapsed under the weight.

“You could hear it from 11 o’clock on, just popping,” said Kalamazoo, Mich., resident Heidi Stafford, who lost power during the night when full-foliage trees crashed onto power lines.

Up to 8 inches of snow blanketed parts of Michigan early Monday before the remnants of the storm blew northeastward into Canada. Colorado got nearly 4-1/2 feet over the weekend, and Nebraska received 23 inches.

At least 16 deaths in seven states were blamed on the weather, and Colorado authorities searched for several missing hunters and a woman missing since Friday night. Her car was found Sunday amid high snowdrifts.

Colorado’s death toll reached eight Monday with reports of three more deaths, including two in weather-related traffic accidents. The third was a 20-year-old soldier, whose body was found Sunday behind Fort Carson’s youth services center. Venturing out in a short-sleeve shirt, he apparently died of exposure.

The storm’s timing and strength heightened awareness of El Nino, the weather-disrupting phenomenon caused by warmer-than-normal water sloshing across the Pacific Ocean. While experts were not ready to blame El Nino specifically for the storm, they did not dismiss its influence.

“It fits very well with the pattern,” said Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We often have an early snow in Colorado - rarely as dramatic as this one - but it can happen. However, it tends to happen a little bit more frequently during El Nino.”

He noted that there have been about 20 El Ninos over the past 100 years, and each of the 20 was defined by wet, cold autumns followed by mild and dry winters.

“We’re right on track with the expected effects,” he said.

Only scattered power outages were reported when the storm hit Colorado. The snow that fell there was light enough that wind could whip it into drifts 15 feet high.

When the storm rolled across the Plains and into the Great Lakes, however, the snowflakes became wetter, stickier and heavier, clinging to power lines and accumulating in thick gobs in the tops of leaf-covered trees.

Towering shade trees shattered under the stress.

“It was kind of like a war zone,” Chris McBride said of the sound in Omaha, Neb.

More than 150,000 business and residential customers lost power in Nebraska over the weekend, and repairs for the 60,000 still without power Monday night might not be finished until Friday.

At the height of the storm in Michigan, a quarter of a million customers were in the dark, said Consumers Energy spokesman Dan Bishop. By Monday night, that figure was down to 160,000.

Some 65,000 Iowa customers lost power during the storm, including rural customers scattered across 51 counties. All but about 10,000 customers, mostly in Des Moines, were still without power Monday. Illinois still had 7,000 customers - down from 42,000 - without lights Monday.

Falling trees also blocked streets and crashed onto cars and homes.

“I woke up, looked out and there was my car with the window smashed out,” Melanie Holman of Kalamazoo told the Kalamazoo Gazette. “A great big tree branch fell down and just missed the house.”

Five deaths in Colorado, two in Nebraska, two in Illinois, and one each in Michigan, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma were blamed on the storm.

In Oklahoma, a 77-year-old woman was found dead under 18 inches of snow near the town of Hooker, about a mile from her home. She had apparently tried to walk home after her car got stuck in a snowdrift.

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