UPDATE Arkansas digs out from deadly winter storm


LITTLE ROCK — Communities across Arkansas on Wednesday began digging out from under record snowfall left by a fast-moving Christmas Day storm that left hundreds of thousands of residents without power and contributed to two traffic fatalities.

Gov. Mike Beebe called out the Arkansas National Guard to help with ambulance service in Pulaski and Faulkner counties. Beebe declared the entire state a disaster area Wednesday afternoon, which he said would enable the state Department of Emergency Management work efficiently with other state agencies in providing storm-related assistance.

Earlier in the day, the governor declared similar declarations to ease federal regulations for the transport of utility crews and supplies, as well as poultry and poultry feed.

Fourteen National Guardsmen with seven military ambulances are assisting first responders in Conway, Little Rock and Jacksonville on Wednesday, National Guard spokesman Maj. Christopher Heathscott said.

Meanwhile, electric utility crews were out in force clearing limbs and working to restore power. Entergy Arkansas officials said work was slow because of the threat of falling trees and tree limbs. More than 160,000 customers remained without power at mid-afternoon, down from more than 191,000 during the height of the storm.

Entergy President and CEO Hugh McDonald president and CEO of Energy Arkansas, said restoring power to all customers in Little Rock, Malvern and Hot Springs, the three cities hit hardest by the storm, could take a week or more.

“This is a very substantial storm,” McDonald said during an afternoon news conference, comparing it to the December 2000 storm that left more than 210,000 customers without power, some for a week or more. “The combination of the ice, probably a quarter of an inch of ice in some places, maybe more, plus on top of that heavy snow that fell and windy conditions all accumulated into a major issue.”

He said about 400 utility workers were on the job Wednesday, and the company expects about 4,000 more to arrive in the state within the next few days.

Power is expected to be restored to all customers in Helena-West Helena and Russellville by the end of today, McDonald said. Residents in Lonoke, Marion, Forest City, Pine Bluff, Stuttgart should have their power restored by the end of Thursday, with outages in Blytheville and Jacksonville resolved by Friday, he said.

State offices were in the Little Rock area were closed Wednesday, with only essential personnel reporting to work.

Joe Goudsward, senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, said by Wednesday afternoon the storm had moved east and the weather was starting to clear over the state.

“Right now we’re just basically in recovery mode,” he said. “It’s sunny everywhere, precipitation has diminished, all weather warnings and advisories have been cancelled or expired. It’s just a sunny and cold day.”

The winter storm, which began early Tuesday as a large swath of freezing rain across Arkansas’ mid-section, dumped more than a foot of snow in some areas overnight. Ice and snow made for treacherous driving into Wednesday.

Highway crews were grading roadways and applying chemicals Wednesday afternoon. A number of big rigs that jackknifed on icy roads littered the interstates in Little Rock and surrounding areas, and authorities urged against driving.

“All available personnel are in their patrol cars working the highways,” state police spokesman Bill Sadler said. “State police is recommending no travel on the major thoroughfares, even though there are sand trucks making runs. It just seems to refreeze rather quickly.”

Randy Ort, spokesman for the Arkansas Transportation and Highway Department, said crews were out working to clear highways and interstates and that road conditions to the east were bad.

“We’re still encouraging people to not get out,” he said. “The longer they can delay their trips the better. People traveling eastward from Little Rock, that is really where we are having the most problems.”

Only the southeastern part of the state was spared the effects of a spectacular snowfall that provided Arkansas with its first white Christmas in years but cause hazardous conditions over much of the rest of the state.

Especially in the state’s midsection, “colder air came in and dropped a bunch of snow in a short amount of time,” Goudsward said.

Areas in a line from Mena to Jessieville, Morrilton to Perryville and Little Rock recorded 10 to 15 inches of snow. Little Rock and North Little Rock recorded 10.3 inches in about a six-hour period, eclipsing a record for both cities of 4.6 inches recorded in 1926, the weather service said.

The greatest accumulation was 15 inches in Perryville.

State police said two children, both under 2 years old, were killed and four others were injured in a two-vehicle accident on icy Arkansas 36 near Mount Vernon in Faulkner County.

The victims were identified as Cloe Meredith and Anastasia Meredith, both of Pangburn.

State police said the girls were passengers in a car driven by their mother, Billi Meredith, 21, also of Pangburn. Authorities said Meredith’s car collided with an SUV just after 3 p.m. Tuesday, during a downpour of freezing rain.

Billi Meredith and a passenger, 21-year-old Jonathan Haddock of Cabot, along with the occupants of the second vehicle, Chalia Forsberg, 32, and James Vanoven, 31, both of Rose Bud, were taken to a Conway hospital for treatment of injuries.

Elsewhere, Sadler said Trooper Kevin Growns received minor injuries Tuesday night when a vehicle slammed into his patrol car while he was working an accident along Interstate 40 east of Atkins. Growns was back on duty Wednesday, he said.

Sadler said I-40 from Russellville through the Little Rock area and eastward seemed to bear the brunt of traffic problems caused by the storm.

Overnight Tuesday, “troopers made their way by literally walking into medians and ditches to help people who had ran off the roadway,” he said.

“In the Little Rock area, wrecker services were overwhelmed by calls for assistance,” Sadler said. “There were lots of instances reported of people who just stayed in their cars overnight, trying to make the best of it there. Either wreckers couldn’t get to them or they were waiting for friends who never came.”

Goudsward, the weather service forecaster, said another winter weather system expected to enter the state Friday “doesn’t look very impressive” but could bring sleet and freezing rain.

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