New storm strikes Northwest, challenges travelers

SEATTLE (AP) -- A fierce winter storm blew in from the Pacific with up to 2 feet of snow and icy wind, creating a nightmare for holiday travelers already stymied by winter's dance across the northern half of the country.

Snow, sleet and freezing rain caused treacherous driving conditions throughout the Pacific Northwest. Sections of two major highways - Interstate 84 in Oregon east of Portland, and Interstate 90 in Washington - were closed late Saturday and authorities urged people not to drive unless it was an emergency.

"It is extremely dangerous to be on the roads at this time," said Multnomah County Deputy Paul McRedmond, sheriff's spokesman.

Centralia, about 25 miles south of Olympia, had already received 9 inches Saturday night. The Seattle area was predicted to get 4 to 8 inches, and early Sunday had a wind chill was 15, the national Weather Service said. Portland and the rest of Oregon's Interstate 5 corridor could get as much as 10 inches.

"It'll be nasty well into Sunday evening," said Jonathan Wolfe, a weather service meteorologist.

A blizzard warning was posted for parts of the Columbia River Gorge between the two states. However, the wind abated in some areas. Late Saturday, wind blowing through the Cascades was steady at 20 to 30 mph with gusts to 50, some 20 to 30 mph less than expected, meteorologist Dana Felton said.

Authorities closed a 45-mile stretch of Interstate 84 from the Portland suburb of Troutdale to East River, Ore., and Interstate 90 across Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Range, Washington's main east-west roadway. There was no indication how long the highways would be closed.

The storm striking the Northwest on the first official day of winter was the third major cold-weather system to punch the country in two days. Northeasterners, many still recovering from an ice storm earlier in the week, dug out Saturday from several inches of snow the night before, and Midwesterners coped with weekend blizzard conditions.

Blizzard warnings remained in effect Sunday for parts of northern Illinois, Iowa and southern Minnesota, the weather service said.

As of Saturday, the December snowfall total in Bismarck, N.D., nearly equaled the 19.3-inch mark for of all last winter, said weather service meteorologist Joshua Scheck.

"The thing about North Dakota is that it's extreme," Scheck said. "For several years we haven't had an aggressive winter like this."

"If you get caught in this stuff, it really is life-threatening," said Dan Miller, science and operations officer at the weather service in Duluth, Minn.

Authorities warned that the storm could deliver a wallop as it moved eastward, potentially causing new power outages.

Gov. John Lynch of New Hampshire, where more than 20,000 homes and businesses were still in the dark Saturday, noted the long wait and the threat of further power failures, with a chance of up to 16 inches of snow forecast for the southern part of the state.

"I continue to hear frustration from the local communities regarding communication with the utilities, and I share their frustration," he said.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers William McCall and Tim Fought in Portland, Ore.; Amy Lorentzen in Des Moines, Iowa; James MacPherson in Bismarck, N.D.; James A. Carlson in Milwaukee; and David Tirrell-Wysocki in Concord, N.H.

(This version CORRECTS that I-90 is in Washington, I-84 in Oregon)

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