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Eastern Kansas digging out after winter storm

TOPEKA, Kan. — People across eastern Kansas braved subzero wind chills Wednesday to dig themselves out from under a massive winter storm that kept schools and state government closed but didn't hit their state as hard others even as it blanketed areas with heavy snow.

The National Weather Service reported that the storm dumped more than a foot of snow Tuesday in a few places. Southeast Kansas appeared to be hit the hardest, with the National Weather Service reporting 18 inches on the ground in Labette County, near the Oklahoma border, 16 inches in nearby Oswego and a foot of snow in Iola. Nine inches of snow were reported in Topeka, though some residents swore it was more, and 5 inches fell at Wichita's airport.

Yet state officials were relieved that the snow wasn't accompanied by a layer of ice that could have brought down trees and power lines and led to widespread power outages. Westar Energy Inc., the state's largest electric company, had reported about 250 customers without power Tuesday, most of them near the northeast Kansas communities of Overbrook and Hiawatha, but the outages were down to a few dozen customers by morning.

The storm that's part of a system more than 2,000 miles long has barreled through the nation's midsection on its way to the Northeast, leaving vast swaths from Chicago to New York paralyzed by snow and ice, stranding hundreds of motorists and shuttering airports and schools.

In Topeka, after a day of wind whipping snow around and creating near white-out conditions, Wednesday was clear and sunny, though bitterly cold. Abe Mahner, a maintenance worker for the Topeka Bible Church, said the snow was a little too deep for him to use a small tractor with a plow to move it, so he had to use a snow blower to clear the sidewalk outside one of its buildings. He was bundled up so that only his eyes were uncovered.

"I'm glad we didn't get the 2 feet," Mahner said, referring to epic snowfalls reported in other states, including neighboring Missouri. "I'm OK with the 10 inches that we got."

The Kansas Department of Transportation reported that a 12-mile stretch of K-99 in Marshall from the town of Beattie to the Nebraska border was closed by both drifting snow and stalled truck overnight. Also closed was a 10-mile stretch of K-9 in Atchison and Jackson counties. Shawnee County officials said Interstate 70 was down to one "mostly clear" lane in both directions in the morning.

Topeka's public library had been closed by the storm Tuesday, but workers cleared its parking lot, and it was open at its regular time Wednesday morning, even with the schools in the city and across the region — and the state Legislature — shut down for the day.

Larry Halford, a retired Washburn University sociology and anthropology professor, managed to make it first to a local shopping mall to do some walking, then to the library, across town. He said he was trying to avoid going stir crazy by staying at home.

"My neighbor cleared out my driveway last night — bless his heart — so there was no problem getting out of the driveway," he said. "It's just so cold."

The National Weather Service had warned Tuesday night that wind chills in some places were dropping past 30 below in some places, and some still approached 20 below Wednesday. That created concerns among cattle ranchers, both because wet, newborn calves could die if left unattended too long and because animals would lose weight, burning more calories just to stay warm, though industry officials didn't see major losses coming.

Brutally cold or not, the snow represented an opportunity for some Kansans looking for work. James Richardson was walking in Elmhurst, the central Topeka neighborhood that includes the library, shovel in hand, on his way to several snow-clearing jobs in the area.

"I'm just trying to get money for food and clothing, shelter — stuff like that," he said. "On a day like today, I can make up to, like $300 — $300 within a six-hour period."

But Gov. Sam Brownback, who'd publicly warned Kansans to stay home with the storm at its height Tuesday, kept non-essential state government workers in the Topeka area home, both Tuesday and Wednesday. Legislative leaders worried that snow-packed roads would make it difficult for some lawmakers to get to the Statehouse and canceled all meetings for those two days, including House and Senate sessions.

"I'm sick about it, but that's probably the better part of valor," House Speaker Mike O'Neal said. "We've got some catching up to do."

Associated Press Writer Roxana Hegeman in Belle Plaine also contributed to this report.