DES MOINES, Iowa – The first widespread snowstorm of the season began a slow crawl across the Midwest on Thursday, creating treacherous driving conditions that, in Iowa, led to a 25-vehicle pileup that killed one person.
Drivers were blinded by blowing snow and didn't see vehicles that had slowed or stopped on Interstate 80 about 60 miles north of Des Moines, state police said. A chain reaction of crashes involving semitrailers and passenger cars closed down a section of the highway.
Drivers throughout the Midwest were harried by heavy snow and strong winds that combined for blizzard conditions in areas from Kansas to Wisconsin. Those who planned to fly before the Christmas holiday didn't fare much better. Snow, wind and thunderstorms forced delays and cancellations at some of the nation's busiest airports, including those in Dallas and Chicago. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people lost power as heavy snow and strong winds pulled down lines.
While the snow had tapered off by sunrise in Des Moines, Iowa transportation officials had advised drivers to stay off highways until midnight, and police repeated that warning after the crash north of the city.
"It's time to listen to warnings and get off the road," said Col. David Garrison, of the Iowa State Patrol. "Iowa's highways and interstates remain in poor condition for travel."
Conditions weren't much better on city streets. Thomas Shubert, a clerk at a store in Gretna near Omaha, said his brother drove him to work in his 4-by-4 truck but that some of his neighbors weren't so fortunate.
"I saw some people in my neighborhood trying to get out. They made it a few feet, and that was about it," Shubert said. "I haven't seen many cars on the road. There are a few brave souls out, but mostly trucks and plows."
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 remained snow-packed and slippery. Jackknifed semitrailers were reported on sections of Interstates 80 and 35 east and north of the city, with portions of the roads closed until the accidents could be cleared.
While the snow had tapered off by sunrise in Des Moines, transportation officials warned drivers to stay off highways until midnight. Strong winds were creating whiteout conditions. The airport at Creston, Iowa, recorded the highest winds, with a gust of 53 mph, said Kevin Skow, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the city.
Strong wind contributed to tens of thousands of power outages in Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska. While snow pulled down most lines in Iowa, others were felled by big gusts, said Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, which had 13,000 customers without power in central Iowa.
"The roads have been so bad our crews have not been able to respond to them," said Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, which had 13,000 customers without power in central Iowa. "We have giant four-wheel-drive trucks with chains on them so when we can't get there it's pretty rough."
Utilities reported more than 33,000 customers without power in the Des Moines area, more than 36,000 outages in eastern Nebraska and more than 41,000 without power in Arkansas, where thunderstorms took out lines. Smaller outages were reported in Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.
Meteorologist Scott Dergan said the snow cover would drag temperatures much lower in Nebraska and Iowa.
"We're talking single digits," Dergan said. "We may even see some sub-zero temperatures in Nebraska. This cold weather will stick around for several days, maybe until the day after Christmas. So we're definitely going to have a white Christmas."
Before the storm, several cities in the Midwest had broken records for the number of consecutive days without measurable snow.
Chicago commuters began Thursday with heavy fog and cold, driving rain, and forecasters said snow would hit the Midwestern metropolis by mid-afternoon. Officials at O'Hare International Airport reported some flight delays and more than 90 cancellations. United Airlines said it would waive change fees for travelers who have to change their plans for travel through O'Hare because of the storm.
American Airlines reported 120 cancellations in Dallas because of thunderstorms there. There also were delays, most involving smaller regional planes that have more flight restrictions, spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said.
"We are trying to delay as much as we can, instead of canceling, because we know that we have many customers who are trying to make their holiday travel plans," Huguely said.
Along with Thursday's fatal accident in Iowa, the storm that swept through the Rockies earlier in the week was blamed for deaths in Wisconsin and Utah. At least two people died Wednesday in a fatal crash on slick roads in southeastern Wisconsin, sheriff's officials said. In southeastern Utah, a woman who tried to walk for help after her car became stuck in snow died Tuesday night. Search and rescue crews on snowmobiles found her buried in the snow just a few miles from her car.
The owner of the Norske Nook restaurant and bakery in Osseo, a town in west-central Wisconsin that woke up to at least 10 inches of snow, said "blizzardy" conditions were not unusual for the area and that the weather would not upset her business.
"It's our policy to stay open for the customers," said Jean Zingshiem. "In case someone is stranded they'll have somewhere to go."
Bill Riggins, of Madison, Wis. said he wouldn't let a little blizzard stop him from riding his bike into work on the University of Wisconsin campus, about five miles from his house. Riggins said his metal-studded snow tires did the trick for the early morning commute at 4:45 a.m.
"I honestly think it would have been more trouble to drive," Riggins said. The ride, which normally takes about 25 minutes, took 40 in the snow. As conditions worsen during the day, Riggins said he expected the ride home to take about an hour.
On the southern edge of the storm system, high winds damaged homes and downed trees in central Arkansas, the weather service said. A powerful storm peeled the roofs off buildings and toppled trucks in Mobile, Ala., but injured no one. Tornado warnings remained in effect in parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama early Thursday.
Hundreds of schools across the Midwest canceled classes Thursday because of heavy overnight snow. Government offices in Iowa and Nebraska were closed.
The moisture was welcome to farmers in the drought-parched region, but Meteorologist Kris Sanders said the storm wouldn't make much of a dent. In Kansas, for example, some areas are more than 12 inches below normal precipitation for the year.
"It's not going to have a big effect, maybe only a half-inch of liquid precipitation. It's not helping us out much," Sanders said.
Sanders said another storm similar to the current one could bring additional snow on Christmas or the day after.
Blake Landau, a cook serving eggs, roast beef sandwiches and chili to hungry snow plow drivers at Newton's Paradise Cafe in downtown Waterloo, Iowa, said he has always liked it when it snows on his birthday. He turned 27 on Thursday.
"It's kind of one of those things where it's leading up to Christmas time," Landau said. "We don't know when we get our first snowfall, and I hope we get it by my birthday. It's nice to have a nice snowy Christmas."