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 their 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 trekking into 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.
Most of the canceled flights were at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway international airports. Aviation officials said Thursday night more than 350 flights had been canceled at O’Hare and more than 150 at Midway. Many people at O’Hare were taking the cancellations in stride and the normally busy airport was much quieter than normal Thursday evening.
Aprielle Kugler said she was considering taking a bus to Des Moines on Friday morning to visit her boyfriend after she had two flights canceled out of O’Hare. Sitting on top of her luggage, the 18-year-old from Wisconsin said her mom shoveled more than a foot of snow out of the family’s driveway that morning to drive her to Chicago for her flight.
“It’s so ridiculous, it’s funny now,” Kugler said.
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.
“It’s time to listen to warnings and get off the road,” said Iowa State Patrol Col. David Garrison.
Truck driver Roy Savage, 42, of Missoula, Mont., left the Twin Cities area of Minnesota late Thursday morning and headed south on Interstate 35. He said roads were clean and dry with a little wind, but as he got closer to the Iowa border winds picked up and road conditions went from dry to snow-packed. He decided to pull over at a truck stop.
Savage said driving in the snow is “no big deal. But when it gets to this point where the winds are this strong and conditions are not safe, it’s definitely best to pull over and wait it out.”
Along with Thursday’s fatal accident in Iowa, 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 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.
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 on Friday.
The cancellations were getting a lot of attention because the storm came just a few days before Christmas. 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.
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, college student Elle Knutson stayed in her apartment most of the day Thursday. The University of Wisconsin at Madison canceled final exams in anticipation of the storm.
Knutson, 21, a senior, went outside for about 10 minutes, walking to a friend’s apartment to drop something off.
“It was awful,” she said.
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.”
Blake Landau, a cook serving eggs, roast beef sandwiches and chili to hungry snowplow 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.”