CHICAGO — Those who got a jump on their holiday travels this year apparently got it right. Those who didn’t may have to wait a bit.
A large storm system moved into the Midwest on Friday for the start of one of the busiest travel periods of the year, but things didn’t really get messy until Saturday, when it delivered a bit of everything — freezing rain, snow, ice, flooding and even tornadoes — to an area that stretched from the Louisiana Gulf Coast to eastern Canada.
Those who took to the roads or skies before midday Saturday likely got where they wanted without a major hitch, but by midafternoon, roads had become slick in many places and flight cancellations and delays started to mount.
The system’s strange swirl of winter and spring-like conditions produced starkly different weather at times in areas separated by a couple hundred miles. While drivers in Oklahoma and eastern Missouri were navigating ice-slicked streets Saturday, residents in Memphis, Tenn., were strolling around in T-shirt temperatures that topped out above 70 degrees.
By Saturday night, a line of thunderstorms stretching from southern Louisiana to Indiana began wreaking havoc, causing rivers and creeks to swell, flooding roads and spawning winds strong enough to force cars and trucks off of highways. At least two suspected tornadoes touched down in Arkansas, injuring a total of five people and damaging nearly two-dozen homes in or near the towns of Dermott and Hughes. And a man in Rena Lara, Miss., was killed Saturday when wind flipped his mobile home.
“This is a particularly strong storm with very warm, near record-breaking temperatures in the East and very cold air in the Midwest, and that contrast is the sort of conditions that are favorable for not only winter weather but also tornadoes,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Danaher in College Park, Md.
The worst of the storm wasn’t supposed to hit Chicago until late Saturday or early Sunday, giving those traveling to, from or through the Windy City a window at the start of the holiday rush.
By midnight EST, nearly 500 flights had been canceled Saturday and more than 7,000 had been delayed, according to aviation tracking website FlightAware.com. Many affected flights were in or out of major hubs, including Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Houston’s Bush International, Dallas/Fort Worth and Denver International.
Given the potential problems with flying and driving, some travelers went another route.
Darren Hall, 45, of Raymore, Mo., normally drives to St. Louis for the holiday, but decided not to risk it because of the freezing rain hitting the area and the promise of worse to come. Instead, he was waiting for a train at Kansas City’s Union Station.
“You don’t have to deal with all the roads. It’s safer, less hassle,” Hall said.
Freezing rain coated parts of northern New England Saturday night, as officials warned people to stay off the roads and utilities prepared for the possibility of widespread power outages. Burlington, Vt., had received a quarter-inch of ice by late Saturday, and the city’s airport was forced to rely briefly on generators after losing power briefly.
“We’ve lined up hundreds of additional out-of-state line workers and tree trimmers in addition to all the GMP employees who will be working until all power is restored,” Vermont Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said.
Many Midwest cities that spent Saturday dealing with rain and ice were expected to get significant snowfall overnight, with up to 6 inches forecast for the Kansas City area by Sunday and up to 8 inches for southern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa and northwest Illinois.
Authorities in several states, including Indiana and Ohio, warned drivers to be especially vigilant about flooded roads. In Indiana, the weather service had posted flood warnings along southern and central Indiana streams and predicted the highest flood crests along the East Fork of the White River since April 2011.
In addition to the Mississippi weather-related death, authorities in Oklahoma were blaming two traffic deaths on the rain and ice. A 16-year-old boy died early Saturday after his car crashed and overturned on U.S. 64 near Tulsa, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. And Oklahoma City police said a woman was killed Friday night in a collision on a slick roadway.
If there is a silver lining for the estimated 94.5 million Americans who were planning to travel by road or air during this holiday season, which runs from Saturday through New Year’s Day, it’s that Christmas happens mid-week this year, AAA spokeswoman Heather Hunter said.
“When a holiday falls on a Wednesday it gives travelers more flexibility of either leaving the weekend before, or traveling right before the holiday and extending the trip through the following weekend,” Hunter said.