LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Freezing rain that created a sheet of ice across north Arkansas knocked out electricity to about 300,000 customers and killed at least four people in accidents.
A police chief in eastern Arkansas was killed when an ice-coated tree limb fell on him Tuesday and three others died in traffic crashes. A fuel tanker caught fire on a wet highway south of Sheridan early Wednesday, killing one person. But state police said it was too early to say if the weather played a role in that death.
The storm system moved from the state Wednesday morning, but cold temperatures continued. Travel was hazardous in the state's north, where temperatures were expected to remain below freezing Wednesday.
Areas farther south were forecast to warm a little, but Wednesday overnight lows were expected to fall into the teens and 20s, cold enough to refreeze water on the roads. Fog also was in the forecast into Thursday morning for the northern half of the state, adding to travel woes.
Up to 3 inches of ice fell in places by Tuesday afternoon, ripping off tree limbs, downing electric lines and snapping utility poles. Gov. Mike Beebe issued a winter-weather state of emergency. The National Weather Service said it would be days before all the ice would melt.
Electric utilities said it would take a week or more to get power restored. Shelters opened from Springdale to Jonesboro and many residents relied on generators or fireplaces to stay warm.
Entergy Arkansas reported 115,450 customers out as of Wednesday morning. Arkansas Electric Cooperatives had about 100,000 customers without electricity, Southwestern Electric Power Co. reported about 54,400 outages and Craighead Electric had up to 40,000 outages.
"By noon (Wednesday) we expect to have the remainder of the 30 to 35 crews here with us to begin the restoration process, which we expect to take anywhere from a week to three weeks," North Arkansas Electric Cooperative Chief Executive Officer Mel Coleman said in an e-mail.
"The loss of trees is incredible," Coleman said. "It does sound like a war zone outside with the sounds of trees snapping coming from all directions. And we have been hearing that now for over 24 hours."
The scene was reminiscent of 2000, when back-to-back ice storms coated central Arkansas with two inches of ice, bringing the region to a standstill.
Three people died in traffic accidents related to the latest storm, and Trumann Police Chief Larry Blagg, 40, was killed when a tree branch laden with ice broke and fell on him as he was helping move fallen branches.
Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said it was too early to say whether the weather was to blame for the tanker fire 13 miles south of Sheridan. The truck carried both gasoline and diesel, 1,500 gallons in all, Sadler said.
In Mountain Home, a Taco Bell managed to stay open and serve customers until a utility pole crashed to the ground just after 2 p.m. Tuesday. The power line cut off the road and power to the restaurant.
"Everything's solid white," manager Ken McGuire said from the restaurant. "Power (lines) have about 4 inches of ice hanging from them. Just ice everywhere."\
McGuire stood outside directing traffic through the Taco Bell parking lot so travelers would not run into the downed electrical line while it was still hot. Nancy Stears, 37, stopped at the restaurant for a respite from the dangerous roads before heading home to Midway in Baxter County. Stears risked the icy roads for a trip to Mountain Home to borrow a kerosene heater from a friend after losing heat at her home around 11 a.m.
The danger isn't the icy conditions, she said, it's the collapsing landscape. "The roads aren't bad unless you get hit by a tree," Stears said. "Trees are falling everywhere you look. It's amazing. I saw power lines broken in half."
Power lines began collapsing in massive numbers by mid-Tuesday due to ice levels far beyond their half-inch capacity.
"It's just gotten worse," was the common phrase heard from service providers like vice president of Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, Doug White. Every update on the number of outages described conditions worsening quickly.
Entergy reported that 17,566 customers were out in Boone County, which has a population of about 34,000. Mississippi County had 12,453 Entergy customers without lights on.
The weather system largely spared the Little Rock area, though two of the people killed died in a Pulaski County traffic crash. The other traffic fatality was in Benton County.
Power companies requested the help of crews from south Arkansas and Mississippi to help restore electricity, Coleman said.
Shelters for people without power, food or water were set up in some of the hardest-hit areas.
More than a dozen school districts called off classes for Wednesday, as well as several colleges and universities. The Clinton Presidential Library closed early Tuesday and state government offices opened two hours late because of weather worries and planned to follow the same policy Wednesday.
A six-vehicle wreck involving four 18-wheelers closed Interstate 40 near Lonoke late Tuesday night.