St. Louis: First snow, then bitter cold

Persistently heavy snowfall and blowing drifts were staying ahead of the plow crews into early afternoon Sunday, and highway officials are warning of a rough conditions for Monday’s commute.

“This is going to be one of the toughest storms we will have to fight,” said Becky Allmeroth, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Transportation. “In some places, we’re putting a plow through a roadway and the snow blows back over within a few minutes. With the temperatures falling, this cleanup may take days. Roads will be in pretty tough shape tomorrow (Monday).”

Allmeroth said bitter cold overnight and Monday will be the main reason for the challenge in clearing pavement after the storm ends. She warned of drifts of as much as four feet along some rural roads, adding, “On some rural routes, crews are having a tough time seeing where the road is.”

The multi-county St. Louis district’s fleet of 200 plows was supplemented by 25 extras from northern Missouri, where there was no snow or only light accumulation.

The Illinois Department of Transportation had 190 plows working the roads in the 11-county Metro East-area district. Joe Monroe, district operations engineer in Collinsville, echoed the concerns of his trans Mississippi River fellows.

“We’ll do our best, but (Monday morning) will be quite a challenge,” Monroe said. “Temperatures this low are not conducive to cleaning roads.”

The good news was that few motorists were trying to use the paths that the plows can make. The Missouri Highway Patrol reported no accidents with injuries in the metro area Sunday morning. The typical call for a trooper concerned a vehicle sliding off roadways.

The Missouri highway department reported that I-44 was closed west of Sullivan, Mo., because of an accident that was reported shortly after 1 p.m. Officials warned of delays of two hours.

A steadily accumulating list of cancellations even included the farewell event scheduled Sunday afternoon in Fairview Heights for the Army Reserve 657th Movement Control Team, bound for Afghanistan. They will move out without ceremony.

Snowfall forecast

The National Weather Service expects snowfall in the St. Louis area to end by about 6 p.m., with accumulations of roughly one foot. But by then, the big news will be the approaching bitter cold — temperatures will fall well below zero overnight and even stiffer winds will create drifts and dangerous wind chills.

By 2 p.m. accumulations already were seven to 11 inches across the metro area, and the temperature had fallen to 16 degrees. It was 35 at midnight.

Snow fell in a wide band, roughly along the Interstates 44 and 70 corridor, from eastern Oklahoma into central Indiana. Some accumulations totaled 1 1/2 inches per hour, with whiteout conditions because of strong winds.

Light snow began falling shortly after midnight, accelerated shortly before dawn and still was heavy and blowing at 1:30 p.m. Forecasters expect St. Louis will see about 10 to 12 inches total, while areas just southeast of the city could get more than a foot of snow.

Plummeting temperatures, dangerous wind

As the snow eases, temperatures will continue to drop and wind gusts will get worse.

Here is the grim forecast: An overnight low of minus eight with wind gusts to 32 mph, a high Monday of only minus three, and an overnight low Monday of minus six. Tuesday offers the relative warmup of a high of 17 degrees, and the forecast for Wednesday calls for a climb to freezing — 32 degrees — but with a chance for more snow.

The National Weather Service warns that bitter cold and continued blustery winds will prevail Sunday afternoon, with a temperature of 10 degrees by 5 p.m.

“The real danger with that cold is the wind chills,” said Scott Truett, a senior forecaster. “That’s a dangerous level of cold. You can literally freeze to death within a matter of minutes when it’s that cold.”

Plenty of closings

Cancellations were piling up Sunday like the snow: Closings Sunday include the St. Louis Zoo, the Art Museum, the Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse, all nine Wehrenberg theaters, all 10 St. Charles County parks and many shopping malls. Among those closed: Chesterfield Mall, Mid Rivers Mall, South County Center, St. Clair Square and West County Center. The Fox Theatre cancelled its matinee finale Sunday of “West Side Story.”

Art Hill in Forest Park remains open to sledders who can get there.

St. Anthony’s Medical Center in south county remains open but closed its four satellite urgent-care centers.

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport remained open, but airlines cancelled more than 235 flights by early Sunday afternoon — almost half of Sunday operations. Airport spokesman Jeff Lea said the airport was operating with one runway, alternating between the two main parallels, with plow crews working on the one not currently in use.

St. Louis Downtown Airport at Cahokia was closed.

MetroLink reported that its trains were running on time, although snow accumulated quickly behind the plow trucks at its station parking lots. Many buses were behind schedule. Metro advised riders to be careful on the snowy stops. Ridership was low.

Officials urge everyone to stay home

Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley announced that city and county government offices will be closed on Monday — high on what surely is to become a long list. The St. Louis Circuit Court will be closed Monday, ditto the offices of Jefferson County government and the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

Slay cautioned that the area should brace for a “three-day event.”

“This is a dangerous storm with driving conditions difficult to impossible,” the mayor said at a Sunday morning press briefing.

“It will be slow, it will be messy, it will inconvenient and, because of the cold, it will be dangerous.”

St. Louis streets department director Todd Waulterman said the city will have 70 trucks on the street by this afternoon.

“The streets are horrible and they will be that way for awhile,”  Waulterman warned.

St. Louis County is operating 170 plows around-the-clock. The main arterial roadways are receiving top priority, according to county officials.

Emergency warming shelters welcomed 124 people Saturday night and Sunday morning. Slay said police and homeless advocates came across 13 homeless individuals on the streets Saturday. Of those 10 accepted an offer to spend the duration of the storm at a shelter.

Dooley reminded residents that St. Louis County has opened two warming shelters: The St. Vincent Community Center in Pagedale and the Affton Community Center.

City Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson reminded residents to remain vigilant while using space heaters.

Jenkerson said it is “vital” to monitor space heaters. “Stay in the room if you’re using a space heater,” the chief advised.

Snow was falling at midday Sunday along a wide band from eastern Oklahoma into central Indiana. Freezing rain was falling at noon Sunday morning in Cape Girardeau, Mo., but that was expected to change to snow as the approaching colder temperatures take over.

Winter records

Snowfalls of one foot or more are rare in St. Louis, although 12.4 inches fell as recently as last March 24. The big one in living memory was 13.9 inches at Lambert on Jan. 30-31, 1982, when 18 inches was recorded in St. Louis city and Jefferson County, and two feet in Greenville, Ill. The record at St. louis is 20.4 inches on March 30-31, 1890.

The cold temperatures are testing records as well. The record low for Monday’s date is minus 11, set in 1884 during the city’s nastiest code wave on record. It hasn’t been below zero at St. Louis since 1999, and the last below-zero high temperature here was minus one on Dec. 22, 1989, or 25 years ago.

Monday’s high is expected to be the coldest in St. Louis since Christmas Eve 1983, when the high was minus 5. The coldest night in living memory here was Jan. 20, 1985, when the low dropped to minus 18 (-28 C).