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Freezing Rain, High Winds Cause Havoc in US Heartland

Wintry weather conditions are causing widespread disruptions in the Great Plains states and as far south as Texas and Louisiana. Hundreds of thousands of people are without electrical power and icy roads have caused more than a dozen deaths in traffic accidents. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, parts of the Gulf coast may be in for the biggest ice storm to hit the area in a decade.

A cold front moving down from Canada and butting up against moisture out of the Gulf of Mexico has produced freezing rain, snow and flash floods from Kansas down to Texas and eastward into Missouri.

Cars and trucks skidding on icy roads have caused dozens of serious accidents, particularly in northern Texas and across Oklahoma. Seven Mexican nationals died on an icy road in western Oklahoma when the van they were in was hit head-on by a large truck.

Across much of the storm's path, wind gusts have knocked down ice-coated power lines leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity, and, in many cases, without heat for their homes. In Missouri, more than 330,000 people are without power and in Oklahoma 120,000 have been affected.

Susan Gallagher, who represents the private power firm Ameren in St Louis, Missouri, says her state has been through a lot this winter

"Missouri has been one of the hardest hit, in terms of weather in the nation," she said. "Particularly, the St. Louis metropolitan area has had more weather events than any other National Weather Service office in the nation. It has set the record for bad weather with 765 events."

She says 3,000 line workers are out in the field now trying to restore power, giving priority to hospitals, emergency centers and places that serve as shelters for people who have been forced from their homes.

"Essentially, what they have done is set up warming centers, all kinds of places have opened where there is electricity, and made places for people to go. The biggest issue is particularly elderly people who do not want to leave their homes," she said.

Gallagher says police and National Guard troops are sometimes deployed to convince elderly people to leave their homes and come to a shelter until conditions improve.

Almost the entire state of Oklahoma has experienced icy roads and power outages in the past few days. Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokesperson Michelann Ooten says conditions are starting to improve, but there is still much work to be done.

He said, "We are continuing to worry about the people who do not have power and making sure that shelters are open, providing generators for those shelters and keeping water treatment plants online."

In Texas the cold front came through the Dallas-Fort Worth area Sunday night and led to road closures in some places. In central Texas, temperatures remained above freezing, but there was heavy rain. Texas Governor Ricky Perry called out the National Guard to assist areas hit by flash flooding.

A wave of freezing cold air is now moving south toward Houston and forecasters predict freezing rain and sleet for the city over the next couple of days. If the forecasts hold true, it will be the first major ice storm to hit this semi-tropical area since 1997 when a blanket of ice disrupted traffic and led to the closing of airports, schools and many businesses.

Road crews are loading trucks with sand and anti-freeze chemicals, which they will apply to icy roadways as needed in the hours ahead. Most Gulf coast motorists are not used to driving on slippery ice and police are urging caution in order to prevent accidents.