Holiday travelers race to beat snow as major winter storm taking aim at West, Midwest

By Kristen Wyatt, AP
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Major winter storm taking aim at West, Midwest

OMAHA, Neb. — A major winter storm is promising to bring a white Christmas to much of the nation’s midsection, though countless holiday travelers faced slick roads and scattered flight delays and cancellations Wednesday that only looked to get worse.

Snow was forecast across a large swath of the Plains and the Midwest, with a foot or two possible by Christmas Day. The storm also was expected to dump sleet and heavy rain as it treks eastward. Blizzard warnings were likely on Christmas Eve in Kansas.

“This is a huge system,” said Rick Hiltbrand, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Chanhassen, Minn. “It’s just going to kind of sit there through the weekend.”

By late Wednesday morning, parts of Nebraska were coated with ice that was up to 1/4-inch thick.

At Betty’s Place restaurant in the tiny town of Bruning, cook Randy Yaney said “ice pellets” falling from the sky were just beginning to turn to snow. While standing in the barren restaurant, he saw a tree limb crash to the ground in a nearby park.

“The roads are just ice,” he said.

Slippery roads were blamed for at least three deaths. A Colorado woman was killed Tuesday when her SUV apparently hit black ice and slid across a median in western Nebraska. The Kansas Highway Patrol said an eastbound car on Interstate 70 in Thomas County spun out of control Tuesday night, crossed the median and was struck by a westbound tractor-trailer, killing both people in the car.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds declared a state of emergency Tuesday. The National Weather Service in Sioux Falls warned of treacherous travel conditions from Wednesday through Friday night, calling the storm “life threatening.”

Jim Myers, who stopped Wednesday at a service station off Interstate 29 in Sioux Falls as he drove from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Hancock, Minn., said he noticed numerous cars that had gone off the road and into the ditch.

Blustery weather already had snarled traffic in Arizona, with blizzard-like conditions shutting down roads and causing a pileup involving 20 vehicles Tuesday. 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 headed into the Plains and the Midwest. Heavy rain was possible in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys and the Ozarks.

Winter storm warnings stretched from Colorado through the Dakotas and into Minnesota on Wednesday. They also were issued for parts of the Four Corners region. By midmorning, snow was falling along Colorado’s Front Range. The heaviest accumulations were around Greeley and Fort Collins, where up to 5 inches had fallen.

No major airport delays were reported in Denver, where about an inch had fallen, but travelers across the region were warned to check with their airlines before arriving for flights.

More than 100 flights were canceled at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and delays were about 30 minutes, said Gregg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Aviation. At Midway International Airport, delays averaged 30 minutes and more than 20 flights were canceled.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported minor delays elsewhere.

Travelers scrambled to adjust their plans before the worst of the storm hit.

“I was going to wait a little longer but when I woke up this morning I heard on the news that it was only going to get worse and worse, so I hit the road earlier than planned,” said Rachel Ahrens, of Papillion, Neb., who stopped for gas Wednesday off Interstate 80 in Des Moines, Iowa, on her way to Ames, Iowa.

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 Wednesday.

Holidays travelers and commuters alike were stranded in the Northeast on Wednesday after an electrical problem forced Amtrak to halt trains in and out of New York’s Penn Station. The outage affected service as far south as Washington, D.C., and as far north as Boston.

Power was restored after about three hours, but it wasn’t immediately known how long delays would persist.

Associated Press writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., Nate Jenkins in Lincoln, Neb., Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., Dirk Lammers in Sioux Falls, S.D., Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines, Iowa, Kristen Wyatt in Denver and Mark Carlson in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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