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Indiana residents warned to stay home amid freeze

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RICK CALLAHAN, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Indiana authorities had a simple message Monday for anyone considering braving the state's icy, snow-covered roads, biting winds and subzero temperatures: Stay home.

Gov. Mike Pence said he would sign an executive order declaring emergencies for at least 25 of Indiana's 92 counties following a powerful snowstorm that dumped more than a foot of snow in some areas Sunday and Monday and delivered the coldest temperatures in two decades.

Pence warned residents that traveling posed "real peril" because of poor road conditions and dangerous wind chills that could linger for 36 hours.

"If you can stay in today, stay in all day today," he said at a Statehouse news conference. "People need to understand that this is a very serious and very dangerous storm and despite the sunshine it continues to be just that."

Many of Indiana's schools, businesses and municipal offices were shuttered Monday, and some planned to remain closed Tuesday, after the storm dumped up to 15 inches of snow and 35 mph wind gusts drifted some roads shut. Nearly 40,000 homes and businesses remained without power Monday afternoon after tree limbs burdened with snow fell onto power lines.

Behind the storm, an Arctic blast delivered temperatures of nearly 15 degrees below zero to the state's northern half the coldest since a record cold wave in January 1994. Wind gusts made it feel like 45 degrees below zero in some parts of the state, which is cold enough to freeze exposed skin in minutes, the National Weather Service said.

In Indianapolis, the midday temperature was 12 degrees below zero. Downtown streets were deserted aside from a few heavily dressed pedestrians and the occasional utility truck or snowplow.

Mayor Greg Ballard issued the city's first red level travel warning since a blizzard paralyzed the city in January 1978. He lifted that ban at noon Monday, but said he wanted schools and businesses in the city to remain closed through Tuesday until the worst of the severe cold had passed.

The noontime temperature was also 12 below zero in Fort Wayne and Terre Haute, and it was even 2 below zero in Evansville in far southwestern Indiana.

Emergency officials in the northern two-thirds of the state warned people to stay off the roads, many of which were rendered impassable because of heavy snow and winds that drifted over some roadways. At least one person had died from a crash on snow-covered roads.

The weather service said the heaviest snowfall was 15 inches reported in the north-central Indiana town of Tipton, while the southern Indiana city of Bloomington, where much of the precipitation fell as rain, reported less than one inch of new snow.

Most counties in the northern two-thirds of the state issued warnings asking everyone except emergency workers to avoid travel.

Highway officials on Monday afternoon reopened two major highways in northwestern Indiana Interstate 65 between Lafayette and Merrillville and I-80/94 from the Illinois state line to Michigan City but warned drivers to use extreme caution. Numerous state and local roads remained closed.

Indiana Department of Homeland spokesman John Erickson said National Guard crews were contributing highway and roadside assistance and helping emergency medical services reach patients. Erickson said even some emergency vehicles were having trouble in the snow.

Indiana's major electricity providers reported more than 37,000 power outages around the state after Sunday's snowstorm. Indianapolis had the most outages, and power remained out for about 30,000 homes and businesses as of Monday afternoon.

About 75 Indianapolis residents whose homes and apartments had been plunged into icy darkness by outages sought shelter in the American Red Cross' local headquarters north of downtown, where they milled about following a breakfast of hot oatmeal, coffee and cookies.

Among them was Ronald G. Smith Sr., a 53-year-old auto mechanic who said he was thankful that he had a warm place to stay until his home's power was restored. He said he fell asleep while watching Sunday's playoff game between the San Francisco 49rs and Green Bay Packers, and that he awoke at around 10 p.m. to no power.

"It was cold and dark. I got dressed and I was scared, thinking 'What am I going to do?' My cat knew something was wrong, he was jumping all over the place," Smith said. "I remember the blizzard of '78 the snow was deep but it wasn't this cold and the lights stayed on. This is brutal cold."

Ann Gregson, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross' Indianapolis region, said nearly 300 people had checked into the state's 16 Red Cross shelters.

State police said 41-year-old Christopher Hutchings of Richmond died Sunday in a crash at U.S. 40 and Indiana 3 in eastern Indiana's Henry County when his car slid on the snow-covered road into the path of a pickup truck.