Holiday travelers adjust plans as fast-moving winter storm plods through West, Midwest

By Kristen Wyatt, AP
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Winter storm plods through West, Midwest

DENVER — A fast-moving storm is promising to bring a white Christmas to parts of the West and Midwest, but not without threatening to cause long delays and tough driving conditions for countless holiday travelers.

The storm is expected to dump more than a foot of snow on parts of Colorado and Southern Utah by midday Wednesday, and blow east into the Plains states through Christmas Day. Blizzard warnings were likely on Christmas Eve in Kansas.

“Pretty much the entire central and southern Rockies are going to get snow, and then it’s going east and will drop more snow,” said Stan Rose, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Pueblo, Colo.

With the snowstorm looming, holiday travelers scrambled Tuesday to adjust their plans.

In Denver, Sarah McAnarney and her husband planned to leave town Wednesday to visit family in Ozark, Mo., with their springer spaniel, Olive. But forecasts prompted them to skip a day of skiing in the Rockies and start driving a day early.

McAnarney said she was caught in a blizzard two weeks ago in the Rockies and needed four hours to drive 100 miles from Vail to Denver. She said she didn’t want to repeat the experience.

“I was driving through a whiteout,” she said Tuesday at a truck stop east of Topeka, Kan. “You couldn’t see over your headlights.”

On Tuesday, blustery weather was already snarling traffic in Arizona, with blizzard-like conditions shutting down roads and causing a pileup involving 20 vehicles. South of Phoenix, a dust storm set off a series of collisions that killed at least three people.

A tropical jet stream pumping in moisture from the storm’s south was likely to cause plenty of snow as the storm heads into the Plains states.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds declared a state of emergency Tuesday, giving his state more flexibility to prepare.

A winter storm watch was in effect for most of southeast Colorado, the panhandle of Oklahoma and north Texas through Thursday. By Tuesday afternoon, light snow was falling in Salt Lake City. No major airport delays were reported there or in Denver, but holiday travelers across the region were warned to check with their airlines before arriving for flights.

In western Nebraska, a Colorado woman was killed Tuesday on Interstate 80 when her SUV apparently hit black ice and slid across a median.

In Nevada, multiple wrecks were reported in and around Reno as snow blanketed the area shortly before the Tuesday evening commute. No serious injuries were reported, the Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, many holiday travelers in the region decided to adjust their plans. Craig Rueschhoff and his girlfriend, Brenna Larson, planned to leave Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday evening instead of Wednesday night to make the 210-mile drive to Columbus, Neb., to visit his parents.

Rueschhoff, 35, said they also planned to visit Larson’s parents in western Iowa on their way back to Des Moines but thought about skipping the annual trip.

“We’ve had both my mom and her mom encourage us not to come if the weather is too bad,” he said. “They wouldn’t feel bad if we didn’t come. We’ve gotten their blessing.”

The winter conditions follow a weekend storm that dropped record snowfall and interrupted holiday shopping and travel on the East Coast. Delays from that storm sparked an unruly crowd that included passengers still on standby Tuesday at the Delta Air Lines terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Police were called to help with crowd control.

Rose said holiday revelers in the West and Midwest should worry about the cold as well as the snow. Temperatures across Colorado on Christmas were not expected to get out of the 20s, with single-digits expected in the mountains.

“It’s going to be cold to begin with, and then it’s going to get even colder,” Rose said.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press Writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., Mark Carlson in Phoenix and Elizabeth White in Salt Lake City.

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