Holiday travelers deal with slick roads, airport delays as storm spreads across Midwest

By Josh Funk, AP
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Winter storm starts to spread across Midwest

TOPEKA, Kan. — A major winter storm lumbering across the nation’s midsection promised a white Christmas for some but brought headaches for residents without power and travelers crawling along slick, icy roads and dealing with canceled and delayed flights.

The worst of the storm was heading northeast across the region Thursday, bringing heavy snow, sleet and rain to a large swath of the Plains and the Midwest. A foot or two of snow was possible in some areas by Christmas Day.

The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings early Thursday for Kansas, western North Dakota, northern Minnesota, northwestern Nebraska and the Texas Panhandle. It cautioned that travel would be extremely dangerous in those areas through the weekend and that anyone taking to the road should pack a winter survival kit including flashlight and water in case of emergency.

It also warned of strong winds and more snow with poor visibility in South Dakota, particularly in the west. Rain, sleet and snow were forecast in western Iowa and Wisconsin.

Scott Blair, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Topeka, Kan., said the wind was becoming a serious issue in central Kansas, with wind speeds of up to 25 mph and gusts reaching 40 mph.

“We’re going to see blowing snow,” Blair said. “The big concern comes later when we see snowfall with the wind, causing reduced visibility.”

Road conditions were particularly bad in northwest Kansas, where 8 inches of snow had fallen overnight. Interstate 70 was completely ice-packed in western Kansas.

“It’s kind of hard to stay on the roads. You’ve got to go slow,” Jason Juhan, a clerk at the Love’s truck stop in Goodland, Kan., said Wednesday. “People are just trying to get through and get to where they need to as fast as they can.”

Still, he saw an upside: “It’s been a few years since we’ve actually had a white Christmas out this way.”

The storm began in the southwest — where blizzard-like conditions shut down roads and caused a pileup involving 20 vehicles in Arizona on Tuesday — and spread east and north, causing weather advisories from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Michigan. Rain, freezing drizzle and snow that fell in parts of the Plains and Midwest on Wednesday were just a precursor to what was expected later in the week.

Slippery roads were blamed for at least 12 deaths — six in accidents on Interstate 80 in Nebraska, four in crashes on I-70 in Kansas, one in Minnesota and one near Albuquerque, N.M. South of Phoenix, a dust storm set off a series of collisions that killed at least three people Tuesday.

Early Thursday, nearly 100 scheduled flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were canceled and dozens more were delayed, according to the airport’s Web site. Scheduled flights out of Bismarck (N.D.) Airport did not appear to be significantly disrupted.

The Chicago Department of Aviation said there were no major delays early Thursday at O’Hare International Airport or Midway International Airport. On Wednesday, it reported more than 200 cancellations at O’Hare and about 60 at Midway.

With temperatures in the low 30s early Thursday, the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives said more than 1,300 customers statewide were without power.

The storm forced the closure of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, and led that state’s governor, Mike Rounds, to cancel travel plans and stay in Pierre for Christmas. Rounds declared a state of emergency Tuesday before the storm even hit.

The winter blast follow a weekend storm that dropped record snowfall and interrupted holiday shopping and travel on the East Coast. Tens of thousands of customers in West Virginia and Virginia remained without power.

Associated Press Writers Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., Dirk Lammers in Sioux Falls, S.D., Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines, Iowa, and Caryn Rousseau and Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.

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