CHICAGO – Travelers facing canceled flights and closed roads were hoping to finally head to their holiday destinations Friday as a widespread snowstorm that dumped more than a foot of snow in parts of the Midwest moved across the Great Lakes toward Canada.
The storm, part of a system that began in the Rockies earlier in the week, led airlines to cancel more than 1,000 flights Thursday and caused whiteout conditions that left roads dangerous to drive on. It was blamed for deaths in at least five states, with parts of Iowa and Wisconsin hit with more than a foot of snow.
While some people went to work on digging themselves out, others had less control: They were stuck waiting for word of new flight times.
In Chicago, aviation officials said more than 350 flights were called off at O'Hare International Airport on Thursday and more than 150 at Midway International Airport.
But on Friday, as the storm continued its crawl eastward, only about 50 flights were canceled and a similar number faced delays of up to two hours at the Chicago airports.
Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride said Friday would be the busiest air travel day of the holiday period, with 200,000 passengers passing through O'Hare and another 66,000 at Midway, based on airline estimates.
High winds were blamed for lingering airport delays further east, with three-hour waits anticipated at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and La Guardia Airport in New York.
The National Weather Service issued a high wind warning for New York City and Long Island, forecasting gusts of up to 60 miles per hour. Winter storm warnings and advisories were issued for Pennsylvania, where snow was forecast starting late morning and through the day.
Southwest Airlines, which canceled all of its flights out of its Midway hub after 4:30 p.m. Thursday, was running its full schedule Friday. United Airlines also planned to operate a full schedule, though spokeswomen for both airlines cautioned travelers to check their flight status before heading to the airport.
Erin Henderson was among those hoping to fly from O'Hare on Friday morning. The 20-year-old college student was trying to return home to Kansas City after five months of studying in Italy. She arrived in Chicago early Thursday evening to learn that the last leg of her flight had been canceled.
Exhausted and teary-eyed, Henderson said she planned to get some sleep at a nearby hotel before trying to catch a flight to St Louis early Friday. She said her father planned to drive across Missouri to collect her.
"It was the closest I can get," Henderson said.
In Madison, Wis., more than 19 inches of snow fell, prompting the University of Wisconsin at Madison to cancel Thursday's finals. Senior Elle Knutson, 21, said she spent most of the day in her apartment chatting with friends on the Internet and staring out her window at the snow.
"At first it was kind of nice, but I'm going a little stir-crazy," Knutson said Thursday night.
The storm made travel difficult from Kansas to Wisconsin, forcing road closures, including a 120-mile stretch of Interstate 35 from Ames, Iowa, through Albert Lea, Minn. Iowa and Wisconsin activated National Guard troops to help rescue stranded drivers.
In Iowa, two people were killed and seven injured in a 25-vehicle pileup. Drivers were blinded by blowing snow and didn't see vehicles that had slowed or stopped on Interstate 35 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.
The storm was blamed for traffic deaths in three other states. There were at least two deaths each in Nebraska and Wisconsin, and one in Kansas.
In southeastern Utah, a woman who tried to walk for help after her car became stuck in snow died 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.
On Friday morning, tens of thousands of homes in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and Illinois remained without power and some schools canceled classes for a second day. The weather service said up to 20 inches of snow fell in the Madison area, and that high winds and drifting snow was making travel treacherous.
The flight cancellations were a concern during the traditionally busy holiday travel period, but Daniel Baker, CEO of flight tracking service FlightAware.com, called it "a relatively minor event in the overall scheme of things."
By comparison, airlines canceled more than 13,000 flights over a two-day period during a February 2011 snowstorm that hit the Midwest. And more than 20,000 flights were canceled during Superstorm Sandy.