The first widespread snowstorm of the season plodded across the Midwest on Thursday, as whiteout conditions sent drivers sliding over slick roads and some travelers were forced to scramble for alternate ways to get to holiday destinations.
DES MOINES, Iowa — The first widespread snowstorm of the season plodded across the Midwest on Thursday, as whiteout conditions sent drivers sliding over slick roads and some travelers were forced to scramble for alternate ways to get to holiday destinations.
The storm, which dumped a foot of snow in parts of Iowa and more than 19 inches in Wisconsin’s state capital, was part of a system that began in the Rockies earlier in the week before hitting the Midwest. It was expected to move across the Great Lakes overnight before moving into Canada.
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.
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Most of the canceled flights were at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway international airports. At O’Hare, many people were taking the cancellations in stride and the normally busy airport was much quieter than normal late Thursday.
At Sea-Tac International Airport, as of 5 p.m., six outbound flights and eight inbound flights had been canceled, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks domestic and international flights.
Most people with impacted flights were alerted by airlines before they come to the airport, so there weren’t huge backups, said Sea-Tac Airport spokesman Perry Cooper.
Southwest Airlines flights canceled at Sea-Tac were an extremely small percentage of the 260 flights the airline canceled nationwide by 5 p.m. Thursday, so spokeswoman Katie McDonald said it was unlikely Sea-Tac Airport would feel large impact from the winter storm. The airline operates about 3,100 flights a day.
“We’re anticipating that flights will start flying out of Chicago and Milwaukee again by morning,” McDonald said Thursday.
The Midwest storm, meanwhile, 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, closing a section of the highway. 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.
“It’s time to listen to warnings and get off the road,” said Iowa State Patrol Col. David Garrison.
The storm was also 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 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, and driving rain.
By evening, high winds, and sleet that was expected to turn to snow were making visibility difficult on roadways.
Airlines were waiving fees for customers affected by the storm who wanted to change their flights. They were monitoring the storm to determine if more cancellations would be necessary Friday.
The cancellations were getting a lot of attention because the storm came just a few days before Christmas.
But Daniel Baker, chief executive of FlightAware.com, called it “a relatively minor event in the overall scheme of things.”
By comparison, airlines canceled more than 13,000 flights over two days during a February 2011 snowstorm that hit the Midwest. And more than 20,000 flights were canceled during Hurricane Sandy.
Before the storm, several cities in the Midwest had broken records for the number of consecutive days without measurable snow.
In Madison, Wis., where more than 19 inches of snow fell, Plaza Tavern manager Erica DeRosa was busy shoveling the sidewalk to prepare for Thursday’s lunch crowd.
“This is like shoveling wet cement,” she said. “But it is super pretty out.”
In the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, Kristin Isenhart, 38, said her three kids, ages 9, 5 and 3, were asking about going outside to play after school was canceled for the day.
“They are thrilled that it snowed,” she said. “They’ve asked several times to go outside, and I might bundle them up and let them go.”
As far as the region’s drought, meteorologists said the storm wouldn’t make much of a dent. It takes a foot or more of snow to equal an inch of water, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people lost power in Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska as heavy snow and strong winds pulled down lines.
Smaller outages were reported in Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.
“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,” he said.
Seattle Times reporter Alexa Vaughn contributed to this report.