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Published: Thursday, 1/31/2008

Snowstorm on way as gusts derail train, down power lines

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

First it was fierce winds coupled with below-zero wind-chills. Next: More cold and snow - and lots of it - could be on the way.

High winds with even higher gusts yesterday derailed part of a train crossing Sandusky Bay, blew vehicles off roads, and downed utility poles and power lines. At least one person was injured.

Headed toward the Toledo area today is a winter storm that forecasters said could drop as much as 8 inches of snow on northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

The National Weather Service yesterday posted a winter storm watch for northern and western Ohio, southeastern Michigan, and most of Indiana taking effect this evening and continuing through tomorrow.

The National Weather Service at Toledo Express Airport yesterday recorded gusts as high as 56 mph, with sustained winds of 39 mph in the wee hours.

Between 10 p.m. Tuesday and 2 a.m. Wednesday, the temperature at the airport plunged from 50 degrees to 16. By midmorning, the mercury was in the single digits. A single-digit low is forecast for this morning too.

School officials in Toledo, Sylvania, and several other districts canceled classes yesterday because of subzero windchills, and two-hour delays were called in others.

Michael Burchell, 52, of Taylor, Mich., was treated at Blanchard Valley Hospital, Findlay, after a wind gust flipped the tractor-trailer he was driving on I-75 onto its side, troopers at the Ohio Highway Patrol's Findlay post said.

The accident occurred shortly after midnight as the semi was southbound near North Baltimore, Ohio, with its trailer empty, troopers said.

No one was hurt in the 3:40 a.m. train incident, in which several railcars carrying empty shipping containers were blown over, said Rudy Husband, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern Railway. Twelve containers ended up in the bay, either floating, sinking, or landing on ice-covered areas.

"It was pretty wild," said Dena Moscheck of Ypsilanti, Mich., a passenger aboard one of several Amtrak trains that were delayed four to five hours until one of two tracks across the bay reopened. "I took some pictures so my Dad could see it."

The Sandusky Bay railroad causeway, which links Ottawa County's Danbury Township with Erie County's Margaretta Township, has been the scene of several similar windblown derailments, typically involving trains carrying shipping containers or truck trailers that are lightweight and catch the wind.

Mr. Husband said Norfolk Southern was aware of forecasts for strong winds overnight and had positioned a train of loaded coal cars on the upwind track in an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to shield trains crossing the causeway's other track.

U.S. Coast Guard officials in Detroit said containers that sank after yesterday's accident would be retrieved today. By then, low-water conditions in Lake Erie's western basin caused by the high wind are likely to have abated as the wind diminished overnight.

Elsewhere, about 17,000 Toledo Edison customers were left without power by about 6 a.m. when high winds downed utility poles and felled tree limbs on power lines, causing scattered power outages throughout the service area, Gary Keys, a utility area manager, said.

Fewer than a dozen customers remained without power by 7:45 last night, Mr. Keys said.

And about 100 Columbia Gas customers in South Toledo were left without service early yesterday when a regulator station failed to increase pipeline pressure in response to higher demand after the temperature fell, a company spokesman said.

All but about 20 had service restored by 9:30 a.m., and the rest were restored later, Columbia spokesman Chris Kozak said. The cause was not immediately known, he said.

Nancy Crandell, a Sylvania Schools spokesman, said the potential hazard for children who walk to school, plus the risk of diesel-powered buses failing, prompts officials to consider closing schools once the windchill drops below -10 degrees.

"We have students that walk," Ms. Crandell said. "We have buses and it's hard to keep them running when it's this cold."

Toledo Public Schools Superintendent John Foley also said his primary concern yesterday was the frigid windchill, which could be too cold for students who might have to stand at a bus stop or walk to school.

Mr. Foley said he, bus drivers, the transportation director, as well as the district's business manager and chief of staff made an assessment of conditions before deciding to cancel school.

Taking the cue from the Toledo Public Schools and neighboring districts, metro Toledo's senior citizens' centers also closed yesterday.

"We really feel in this kind of harsh weather, it is better for the seniors to stay inside," said Emilie Owens, vice president of home-care options for the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio. "Staying in is the best thing. The activities they might have done can be postponed until another day."

But officials in some area districts, including Monroe Public and Anthony Wayne Local schools, had classes as usual.

"I saw no reason to close," said John Granger, the Anthony Wayne superintendent. "The buses were fine. The roads were clear. The buildings had power."

Most Anthony Wayne students ride buses rather than walk to school, he said, and there were no bus problems.

"If education is important, then put your coat on, wear a hat, warm your car up, he said. "I know that may be an old-school mentality. It's [just] a beautiful winter day in Ohio."

Terry Serbin, Monroe City Schools Assistant Superintendent of Personnel, echoed Mr. Granger's view: "We really didn't believe that the windchill itself was a reason to close. We didn't really feel it was a dangerous situation."

The high wind and icy cold roared in from the west behind an Arctic front that passed through the Toledo area late Tuesday night, said Tony Zartman, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., a private forecasting firm based in State College, Pa. At midafternoon, sustained winds exceeding 20 mph still blew at Toledo Express, with gusts above 30. Mostly cloudy skies with a high in the 20s were forecast for today as a prelude to the next storm's arrival tonight.

The National Weather Service's storm watches meant that significant winter weather was expected, but the agency cautioned that the imminent storm's track was uncertain. As of midday yesterday, 2 to 4 inches was predicted in Toledo tonight and "moderate snow" tomorrow, but forecasters said that if its center moves farther north than expected, the Toledo area could receive sleet or freezing rain instead of all snow.

"[Toledo] looks more than likely to be on the snow side of things, and the mix is headed more our way," said Karen Oudeman, a National Weather Service forecaster in Cleveland.

Staff writers Mike Sigov and Kate Giammarise contributed to this report.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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