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This week is the coldest in North Texas in 15 years

This week's weather is the coldest the North Texas region has seen in at least 15 years, and possibly more than 20 years, the National Weather Service says.

But it didn't stop Super Bowl officials from putting on their annual Media Day, the festive occasion in which the athletes get a chance to meet hundreds of members of the world press.

"The show goes on," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail.

DFW Airport, the official reporting site for the region, hasn't dropped down to the single digits since February 1996, said meteorologist David Huckaby of the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. That year, the thermometer dropped below 10 degrees once and never got below 8 degrees.

"We'll likely be in the single digits the next few mornings," Huckaby said. "Last time we saw two [days] in a row was 1989 when we dropped below zero.

"It's certainly an unusual event for North Texas," he said.

The region was coated with a thick sheet of snow and ice Tuesday.

A fast-moving winter storm carrying as much as 3 inches of sleet arrived before dawn, bringing with it high winds and treacherous road conditions that had started deteriorating by 5:45 a.m. Dallas-Fort Worth Airport was closed for a couple hours Tuesday morning and more than 600 flights were canceled.

Nearly 800 workers from the Texas Department of Transportation and North Texas Tollway Authority worked overnight to ensure that roads would remain open, but by mid-morning some highways in Dallas-Fort Worth had become littered with cars and big rigs that had lost traction on the ice.

"We've been out heavy and hard since about midnight," said Val Lopez, Texas Department of Transportation spokesman. He said about 80 vehicles are patrolling the Fort Worth area, applying anti-icing and deicing material to the roads and bridges. The material is a granular or liquid form of magnesium chloride that is not environmentally harmful, he said.

Some area drivers have complained that the department focused its efforts on ensuring routes to Super Bowl venues were open at the expense of roadways in their areas, but TxDOT spokesman Lopez said that wasn't the case and that all areas were treated fairly.

"We have 3,000 lane miles of highway and we do our best to cover them, but in this situation you are going to have areas pop up," Lopez said. "This is a more severe storm than in any of the previous seven years I've been here."

And the National Weather Service is predicting wind-chill factors at zero or below tonight.

Although the Super Bowl media day was unaffected by Mother Nature, some other charitable events were canceled or postponed by bad weather. For example, the National Football League's plan to host a Play 60 Challenge at Bebensee Elementary School in Arlington was postponed.

In downtown Fort Worth, ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning went off on schedule at 5 a.m. from Sundance Square, although the show did move into the somewhat covered and protected SportsCenter set in the Chisholm Trail lot.

But the icy conditions brought parts of Dallas-Fort Worth to a standstill.

Despite the large TxDOT effort to mitigate the icing problems on North Texas roadways, problem spots were reported on numerous highways. Crashes involving multiple 18-wheelers were reported in the southern parts of Dallas County and the Interstate 35W southbound connection to eastbound I-30 was closed this morning because of a jackknifed 18-wheeler.

Earlier, TxDOT cameras showed that Interstate 30 eastbound near Cherry Lane was shut down by a multi-vehicle crash. Motorists and safety personnel could be seen gingerly walking on the icy roadway outside their vehicles.

One of the worst roads was in the 5600 block of N. Beach Street in Fort Worth where 18 vehicles were reported sideways and off the street on a slight hill this morning, authorities said.

The storm is already costing many motorists whose vehicles have slid off roadways. Towing costs are ranging from $85 to $90, and it increases if the vehicle is a long way off the highway, area police said Tuesday.

The area was pelted by sleet and snow and some accumulation has been recorded.

But the precipitation had largely ended by noon. Temperatures felll all day, making for a tricky evening commute. Whatever falls in the morning "should hang around into the night hours," Harris said.

All major school districts in the Tarrant County area, including Fort Worth, Arlington, Keller, Grapevine-Colleyville and Northwest ISDs, were closed on Tuesday.

Classes at area universities were canceled including The University of Texas at Arlington, Texas Christian University and Texas Wesleyan in Tarrant County and the University of North Texas and Texas Woman's University in Denton.

Meals on Wheels of Tarrant County canceled deliveries today, and said clients should have "shelf-stable" meals that were provided earlier.

All YMCAs of Metropolitan Fort Worth branches were closed.

Much of North Texas was under a winter storm warning, the weather service reported. The high today was expected to reach only the mid-20s with wind-chill readings as low as zero or below at night. At 6:30 a.m., the temperature in Fort Worth was 19 degrees.

The light-rail system in Dallas was shut down because of freezing weather, Dallas Area Rapid Transit officials announced at 6:11 a.m.

The passenger rail system operates on overhead electrical lines that can become inoperable when frozen.

DART has contingency plans to run its trains empty overnight, to keep the electrical connections sound, Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said Monday afternoon. But for whatever reason, those plans appeared to be inoperative Tuesday morning.

DART began putting out notices at 4:30 a.m. warning riders of travel delays throughout the mass transit system, and at 6:11 a.m. notified customers that rail service had been suspended.

The Trinity Railway Express commuter rail line between Fort Worth and Dallas was running, but riders could expect significant delays.

The TRE operates with traditional, diesel-powered locomotives, which tend to do well even in adverse weather. However, many TRE riders transfer to DART light-rail once they reach Dallas to complete their commute, and on Tuesday morning the closure of the DART light-rail system made such transfers impossible.

High-occupancy vehicle lanes were shut down on I-30 in Arlington, Grand Prairie and Dallas, as well as U.S. 75 at the High Five and I-35E/U.S. 67 in the Dallas area, DART officials said.

Keeping roads open

Super Bowl planners have pledged to keep major roads open.

"Some of us have been at this for close to four years, so we are prepared for the events of the week, including weather," said Morris, of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, also a member of the Super Bowl Host Committee.

The frigid weather could be to blame for power outages spreading throughout Dallas-Fort Worth.

Oncor workers were racing to restore power to about 10,000 households in the DFW area as of 9:30 this morning, a company official said.

Altogether, about 20,000 households lost power throughout Oncor Electric Delivery's entire system, which includes parts of west Texas, spokeswoman Cristi Ramon said.

Oncor customers are encouraged to report power outages by calling 888-313-4747.

Fort Worth water mains appeared to be unaffected by the weather but that might change if the frigid temperatures stay until the end of the week.

The water temperature of the mains are still at about 50 degrees and need to be closer to 40 degrees before problems with the pipes can occur, said Mary Gugliuzza, Fort Worth Water Department public education coordinator.

The freezing temperatures could cause severe problems for area homeless.

The Salvation Army and the Arlington Life Shelter said they are scrambling to take care of additional poor and homeless people, and the Salvation Army said it plans to operate two emergency shelters tonight at 207 Elm Street in Lewisville and 3528 E. 14th Street in Plano.

The organization’s full-time emergency shelters in Fort Worth and Dallas are already at capacity. In Fort Worth, the group is working with the nearby Presbyterian Night Shelter and Union Gospel Mission to house extra people. In Dallas, The Bridge, a homeless facility is helping handle some of the overflow.

Huge storm

The region is caught in part of a storm engulfing a third of the country. In Wisconsin, residents who plan to drive to North Texas for the Super Bowl on Sunday are being urged not to leave until Wednesday afternoon, after a blizzard has passed.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines reported 600 flight cancellations today out of 850 scheduled daily departures. American waived rebooking penalties in certain cities. DFW Airport was closed to incoming flights for a couple hours Tuesday morning.

By 8:30 a.m. the airport had reopened for airline flights, airport spokesman David Magana said.

The departure cancellations were due not only to the weather situation at the airport but also the severe winter in the Midwest and the Northeast.

DFW is advising all passengers to check their flight status at the airport's website for the latest on the status of their flights prior to driving to the airport.

The airport's road treatment crews had treated runways and roadways which glazed over in the early morning hours.

For motorists heading to the airport, the airport's flyover bridges from International Parkway were icy and treacherous, but passable, Magana said.

Dallas Love Field was closed to incoming flights on a "ground stop." An FAA official in Fort Worth said Tuesday that Meacham Airport in Fort Worth was closed and that Alliance Airport in Fort Worth had only one runway open. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines said it scrubbed 550 flights scheduled for today and the number of cancellations "will rise," a spokesman said. Delta also issued a waiver so travelers may rebook without penalty.

The wintry weather also was making for hazardous travel outside Dallas-Fort Worth.

In Parker County, travel was "treacherous," said Parker County spokesman Joel Kertok.

A Parker Sheriff's Department dispatcher who declined to give her name said drivers were advised to stay home.

"It was difficult for us to get in this morning and we're telling people to stay in," the dispatcher said.

Farther north, 4-6 inches of snow was coating U.S. 287 through Decatur, Bowie and all the way to Wichita Falls.

"For the most part, all we're seeing is commercial traffic out on 287," said DPS trooper Tony Fulton, who was traveling 287 near Wichita Falls.

"We're seeing an occasional car in a ditch but not much," said Fulton.

In Johnson County, there were few problems with about an inch of ice on the roads, said Sheriff Bob Alford. No major accidents were reported.

Icy conditions existed as far south as West on Interstate 35, along the Hill-McLennan County line. Farther south toward Waco and Austin, the roads were clear, said DPS trooper Charlie Morgan, who is based in Waco.

"There are numerous accidents in Hill County," Morgan said. "They are having all kinds of problems there but once you get south of West, the roads are fine. By the time it got below freezing here, the precipitation was gone."

TXDOT officials were urging drivers headed out of the DFW area to postpone travel for several days.

West of Fort Worth, Interstate 20 was coated in snow and ice as far west as Midland-Odessa.

“If we don’t get any sunshine, it’s going to be late Wednesday or Thursday before travel conditions improve,” said Larry Smith, a TxDOT area engineer in Eastland. “Hopefully the sun will come out tomorrow and that black pavement will warm up, but right now it’s still snowing in Eastland.”

There were times Tuesday that the notorious Ranger Hill, an incline 75 miles west of Fort Worth that has been the bane of 18-wheelers for years, caused slowdowns, but the interstate was never closed.

“There were just some idiots driving too fast that were causing problems,” Smith said

TxDOT crews were being sent from south of San Angelo, where sleet did not fall, to help treat roadways west of Fort Worth. But Smith said there were concerns that Tuesday night’s frigid temperatures would make road conditions even more hazardous Wednesday morning.

That sentiment was echoed by DPS trooper Dub Gillum, based in Granbury. While most drivers stayed home on Tuesday, many may try to return to work Wednesday when some roas slush has turned into a dangerous black ice.

“I am worried that it could be worse (Wednesday),” Gillum said. “People have done a good job of staying off the roads (on Tuesday) and they need to exercise as much caution, if not more, on Wednesday morning.”

Despite the interstate remaining open, Smith said it will probably remain in poor conditions for travelers until Wednesday afternoon or Thursday.

To the northwest of Fort Worth, ice and snow covered U.S. 287 to Wichita Falls and then onward to Amarillo. Most of the traffic was limited to commercial trucks, the DPS said.

Sleeping on cots

Nearly 800 employees of the Texas Department of Transportation and North Texas Tollway Authority have been called into service to patrol Dallas-Fort Worth highways, aggressively spotting and treating the slightest sign of ice.

The timing will be tricky, the Transportation Department's Lopez said, because the de-icing material can be washed away during a rainstorm. The key is to wait until the rain turns to sleet and then aggressively treat the highways before the sleet hardens.

Most of the workers are already based in Dallas-Fort Worth, but the department is calling in workers from elsewhere.

In all, about 529 department employees and 250 tollway authority employees will likely be on the job.

The out-of-town workers will sleep in cots at agency offices, where they will be fed and paid overtime, said Brian Barth, deputy engineer for the department's Fort Worth district.

The workers will patrol the highways in large trucks, armed with liquid and granular magnesium chloride, an anti-icing agent designed to keep roads above the freezing mark while not harming the environment.

"TxDOT has enough material to get us through a several-day event, and we can get more if needed," Barth said.

The emphasis will be on roads such as Interstate 30, Texas 360, Texas 180 (Division Street) and Farm Road 157 (Collins Street) and Texas 121/183 (Airport Freeway) from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

But all highways in the region that need treatment will get it, Barth said.

Staff writers Domingo Ramirez, Pete Alfano, Jim Fuquay, Bill Hanna, Gary West, Lance Murray, Chance Welch, Tom Uhler and Marty Sabota contributed to this report.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

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