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Icy, white Christmas Eve freezes holiday traffic

weather scenes December 24, 1998
Web posted at: 8:20 a.m. EST (1320 GMT)

In this story:

(CNN) -- It looks like a White Christmas for many parts of the country, but it's not the idyllic one Bing Crosby crooned about.

After turning roads across the nation's midsection into deadly sheets of ice, snow and freezing rain barreled into the East Coast Thursday, threatening to disrupt travel for thousands on Christmas Eve.

Several inches of snow and freezing rains were predicted from Tennessee into the Northeast by Thursday night, while another storm system promised snow for the Northwest.

"The roads are going to be real bad, so if people have not done what they need to do, they probably won't be able to do it before Christmas," said Dewey Walston, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Maryland.

The cold snap that began over the weekend is blamed for dozens of traffic accidents from Texas to Maryland. Besides turning shopping malls into ghost towns, the Arctic drizzle hampered holiday travel by air and land, and California blamed the chill for more than $590 million in damage to its citrus crops.

"I was playing golf two days ago," said retiree Robert Reddersen of Berlin, Maryland. "I won't be playing tomorrow, that's for sure.

Cold stalls presidential limo

Even President Clinton was slowed by the weather, showing up late for an event in Baltimore early Wednesday after his limousine failed to start in freezing temperatures in the White House driveway.

Harsh weather slows FedEx packages

Snow fell for the first time this season on the Christmas tree at New York's Rockefeller Center.

By early Thursday, weather-related delays and cancellations had been reported at many airports across the eastern third of the nation, including Baltimore, Dallas, Charlotte, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee.

"I'm stuck here," said Betty Stiles, who passed the time chatting with customers awaiting delayed flights at the airport in Jackson, Mississippi.

Air, road travel delays

On what is traditionally one of the busiest air traffic seasons of the year, Northwest Airlines had canceled 64 departures and 68 arrivals at Memphis International Airport by midday Wednesday. Delays were running more than three hours.

Tennessee roads were so treacherous that Greyhound bus lines in Nashville and Memphis stopped service until the weather improves. Nearly 500 people at the terminal in Nashville had to stay overnight Wednesday.

"We'd rather have them safe here at the terminal than stuck out there on the highway," said terminal manager Gary Babcock.

Traffic heading from Oklahoma to Gainesville, Texas, stacked up for miles along icy Interstate 35. State troopers went vehicle to vehicle, urging drivers to turn around and go home.

In the tiny town of Tom in Oklahoma's southeastern corner, 69-year-old Billie Lewis already had given up plans to spend Christmas with her children in Dallas.

"It woke me up this morning coming down in sheets of ice," Lewis said Wednesday. "I'm not going nowhere."

Deadly accidents

The Texas Department of Public Safety and other agencies counted 12 people killed in weather-related traffic accidents through Wednesday evening, including deaths from massive multi-car pileups outside Austin.

In Shreveport, Louisiana, Gladine Draughn's sports utility vehicle slid off an icy overpass and fell 35 feet to the street below. She came out with only a black eye and bruises, calling it "a miracle."

About 800 people scheduled to work the second production shift Thursday at the General Motors plant in Shreveport were told to stay home. Spokesman Jim Hopson said poor driving conditions around the South kept truckloads of parts from reaching the plant.

Scattered power outages affected thousands of people in the Carolinas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana as tree limbs weighed down with ice snapped lines. Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster declared a state of emergency in parts of the state, putting the National Guard on standby.

'I can't miss Christmas'

"I don't like the cold. I don't want it," said Anne Zolkower, whose daughter Emily joined classmates making snacks Wednesday at a Christmas party at Georgetown East Elementary in Annapolis, Maryland.

"This is turning into my worst Christmas ever," said Gerald Hunt of Atlanta after canceled flights in Shreveport forced him to turn to a 16-hour bus ride he hoped would get him home on Christmas Eve.

"I have small children at home and I can't miss Christmas. I was at the point of tears in the airport. I don't want a hotel and food -- I want out of here," Hunt said.

Central parts of the nation were expected to have good traveling conditions for Christmas Eve. A large area of high pressure over the central Plains was expected to bring sunny to partly sunny skies to the western Great Lakes and northern Plains, south into the central Plains and middle Mississippi Valley.

A few snow flurries and snow showers were forecast in the Lake Michigan snowbelt region but no significant accumulations were expected.

A storm system moving into the Pacific Northwest was expected to bring some snow, with a couple of inches forecast for coastal areas before turning to rain. Snow showers were expected to spread east into Idaho and Montana and into Utah later Thursday.

Calmer weather was forecast for areas from the central Rockies, south through the desert Southwest, and west into California. An area of high pressure in the central Rockies was expected to keep skies across that region partly cloudy.

Copyright 1998   The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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