Small Texas town sees first white Christmas in 86 years; Midwest starts to dig out

Saturday, December 25th 2004, 11:01 am
By: News On 6

Folks in Victoria, Texas, just off the Gulf Coast, weren't dreaming Saturday when they woke up to a white Christmas. They had one _ the first in 86 years.

Almost a foot of snow fell overnight to give Victoria a taste of what the country's midsection has been dealing with the past two days: winter weather.

An arctic front that swept through the Midwest hit Indiana and Kentucky particularly hard, bringing record snowfalls that snarled holiday travel and stopped last-minute Christmas shoppers in their tracks. More than a dozen traffic deaths and thousands of auto accidents have been blamed on the storm so far.

The last time Victoria saw a measurable amount of snow was 1973, when a tenth of an inch fell. That's the same amount that fell on Christmas 1918, said Tony Merriman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

``It's a miracle,'' proclaimed Hailey Koronczok, who was watching the snow fall as she worked at a Denny's. ``Everybody's excited and shocked that it is snowing down here.''

A few of Koronczok's co-workers _ outnumbering their customes 2 to 1 because of the bad weather _ ventured outside, wading into what turned out to be knee-high snow in some areas.

``Everybody's freaking out,'' said Megan Gohlke, 22, who gave her own traffic report: no closings or tie-ups, only a stranded car here and there.

And they weren't going to be stranded long: The forecast called for a fast melt, with highs in the 50s.

With the exception of South Texas and some air passengers in Philadelphia, things were starting to look up late Friday.

A portion of Interstate 64 in Indiana reopened, a day after more than 100 stranded travelers were rescued from their snowbound vehicles. But the road was still treacherous because of hundreds of abandoned vehicles along a 25-mile stretch near the Illinois line.

Some Indiana churches canceled Christmas services to keep people off the road after much of the state was buried in up to 2 feet of snow.

``We were not asking parishioners to be out when police say to stay in,'' said the Rev. Dave Ferry, pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Bedford, Ind.

In Normal, Ill., wind chill readings below zero compelled Epiphany Catholic Church to warm the camel, goats and sheep in its live Nativity scene with king-size electric blankets. The wise men, Mary and Joseph were given battery-powered heaters to carry in their pockets, and Jesus was played by a doll instead of a baby.

``That we wouldn't want to risk,'' Monsignor Eric Powell said.

It was shaping up to be a carry-on Christmas for some unlucky passengers traveling through Philadelphia International Airport. Thousands of bags had been separated from their owners because of weather-related diversions, cancellations and missed connections, officials said.

``We have lots of bags on hand,'' US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said Friday. ``It's simply reuniting the bags with their passengers.''

With frigid temperatures forecast for Ohio on Saturday, some 275,000 homes and businesses _ about half of them in Columbus _ remained without power two days after the storm hit, and ice-covered tree branches kept falling onto power lines.

William and Janie Van Winkle had to leave their frigid apartment for a shelter in Newark, Ohio. They didn't expect to have their power restored until Sunday, and were trying to isolate their 11-month-old son from other children at the shelter because he recently had surgery for a heart condition.

``We pictured his first Christmas as being perfect,'' William Van Winkle, 29, said Friday by telephone. ``Things really changed.''

In Alaska, a different storm stranded motorists for nearly a day on a remote highway blanketed by snow drifts as high as 7 feet. Department of Transportation crews rescued about 30 people Friday on the highway between Delta Junction and Paxson, about 150 miles south of Fairbanks, said DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy.

``We were fortunate that people came prepared,'' she said.