The first widespread snowstorm of the season plodded across the US’ Midwestern heartland on Thursday, as whiteout conditions sent drivers sliding over slick roads and some travelers were forced to scramble for alternate ways to get to their holiday destinations.
The storm led airlines to cancel about 1,000 flights ahead of the Christmas holiday — relatively few compared to past big storms, though the number was climbing.
In Iowa, two people were killed and seven injured in a 25-vehicle pileup. Drivers were blinded by blowing snow and did not see vehicles that had slowed or stopped on Interstate 35 about 96km north of Des Moines, state police said. A chain reaction of crashes involving semi-trailers and cars closed down a section of the highway.
The storm, which dumped more than 482mm in Wisconsin State capital Madison, was part of a system that began in the west earlier in the week before trekking into the Midwest. It was expected to move across the Great Lakes overnight before moving into Canada.
Most of the canceled flights were at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway international airports. Aviation officials said on Thursday night that more than 350 flights had been canceled at O’Hare and more than 150 at Midway.
The storm made travel difficult from Kansas to Wisconsin, forcing road closures, including a 193km stretch of Interstate 35 from Ames, Iowa, through Albert Lea, Minnesota. Iowa and Wisconsin activated National Guard troops to help rescue stranded drivers.
The storm was blamed for traffic deaths in Nebraska, Kansas and Wisconsin. In southeastern Utah, a woman who tried to walk for help after her car became stuck in snow died on Tuesday night.
On the southern edge of the storm system, tornadoes destroyed several homes in Arkansas and peeled the roofs from buildings, toppled trucks and blew down oak trees and limbs in Alabama.
The heavy, wet snow made some unplowed streets in Des Moines nearly impossible to navigate in anything other than a four-wheel drive vehicle. Even streets that had been plowed were snow-packed and slippery.
In Chicago, commuters began Thursday with heavy fog and cold, driving rain. By early evening, high winds and sleet that was expected to turn to snow were making visibility difficult on roadways.
Airlines were waiving fees for customers impacted by the storm who wanted to change their flights. They were monitoring the storm throughout the night to determine if more cancellations would be necessary yesterday.
The cancellations were getting a lot of attention because the storm came just a few days before Christmas. However, Daniel Baker, chief executive of flight tracking service FlightAware.com called it “a relatively minor event in the overall scheme of things.”
In Madison, Wisconsin, where more than 482mm of snow fell, Plaza Tavern manager Erica De-Rosa was busy shoveling the sidewalk to prepare for Thursday’s lunch crowd.
“This is like shoveling wet cement, but it is super pretty out,” she said.