Big Midwest Storm Cripples Holiday Travel

A vehicle passes a plow traveling north on U.S. Highway 281 north of Hastings, Neb. Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009. A major winter storm caused at least three highway deaths and crippled holiday travel in the Mountain West, Great Plains, and Midwest. AP Photo/Hastings Tribune

Updated 6:31 p.m. EST

Holiday travelers battled slick, icy roads and scattered flight cancellations and delays as a major winter storm began to spread across much of the nation's midsection Wednesday.

Snow was forecast across a large swath of the Plains and the Midwest, with a foot or two possible by Christmas Day. The storm also was dumping sleet and heavy rain. Blizzard warnings were likely on Christmas Eve in Kansas.

"This is a huge system," said Rick Hiltbrand, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Chanhassen, Minn. "It's just going to kind of sit there through the weekend."

"Pretty much the entire central and southern Rockies are going to get snow, and then it's going east and will drop more snow," said Stan Rose, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Pueblo, Colo.

It's a wintry one-two-three of rain, sleet, and snow that is crossing the Great Plains now, bearing down on the Great Lakes, and tying travel plans in knots.

"This storm will have its biggest impact in the central plains and northern plains over the next couple of days," Accuweather's Bernie Rayno told CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.

In northwest Kansas, snow started falling before sunrise, after freezing rain had already iced up roads. Part of Gove County saw 8 inches of snow, though it was far lighter elsewhere, said Albert Pietrycha, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Goodland.

A stretch of Interstate 70 in western Kansas was snowpacked by mid-afternoon, although it wasn't closed - yet.

"It's kind of hard to stay on the roads. You've got to go slow," said Jason Juhan, a clerk at the Love's truck stop in Goodland. "People are just trying to get through and get to where they need to as fast as they can."

Still, he saw an upside to the weather: "It's been a few years since we've actually had a white Christmas out this way."

By Wednesday afternoon, parts of Nebraska were coated with ice that was up to 1/4-inch thick and a number of churches were already canceling Christmas Eve services in anticipation of more ice and snow.

At Betty's Place restaurant in the tiny town of Bruning, cook Randy Yaney said "ice pellets" falling from the sky were just beginning to turn to snow. While standing in the barren restaurant, he saw a tree limb crash to the ground in a nearby park.

"The roads are just ice," he said.

Slippery roads were blamed for at least three deaths. A Colorado woman was killed Tuesday when her SUV apparently hit black ice and slid across a median in western Nebraska. The Kansas Highway Patrol said an eastbound car on Interstate 70 in Thomas County spun out of control Tuesday night, crossed the median and was struck by a westbound tractor-trailer, killing both people in the car.

Reynolds reports the storm has also caused problems in Arizona, where at least three people were killed in a huge highway pileup during a dust storm about 40 miles south of Phoenix. Just a few miles away, there was a second pileup. Both were triggered by dust kicked up from nearby farm fields.

In Chicago, about 200 flights at O'Hare International Airport were canceled along with about 40 flights out of Midway International Airport, the city's Aviation Department said. Southwest Airlines spokesman Brad Hawkins said only a handful of the airline's flights were leaving Chicago. For the flights still scheduled to take off, delays reached past two hours at O'Hare.

Air carriers tried to smooth the wrinkles nationwide by waiving fees - allowing passengers to re-book around the storm.

"You're seeing consumers in high numbers right now try to get out before the storm comes," Brian Hoyt of Orbitz.com told Reynolds.

On the roads, with 87 million people expected to travel 50 miles or more this holiday, icy Omaha gave the eastern half of the country a look at what to expect.

The weather discouraged even small trips, and that worried retailers already set back by this past weekend's blizzard. Sales on Saturday were down $1 billion from a year ago. Now merchants fear the new storm will snarl last-minute shopping, Reynold reports.

JC Penney has already announced post-Christmas deals and will open at 5 a.m. on Saturday.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds declared a state of emergency Tuesday. The National Weather Service in Sioux Falls warned of treacherous travel conditions from Wednesday through Friday night, calling the storm "life threatening."

In Arizona, blizzard-like conditions shutting down roads and causing a pileup involving 20 vehicles Tuesday. South of Phoenix, a dust storm set off a series of collisions that killed at least three people.

On Wednesday, winter storm warnings stretched from Colorado through the Dakotas and into Minnesota. They also were issued for parts of the Four Corners region.

A tropical jet stream pumping in moisture from the storm's south was likely to cause plenty of snow throughout the Plains and the Midwest. Heavy rain was possible in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys and the Ozarks.

Travelers scrambled to adjust their plans before the worst of the storm hit.

"I was going to wait a little longer, but when I woke up this morning I heard on the news that it was only going to get worse and worse, so I hit the road earlier than planned," said Rachel Ahrens, of Papillion, Neb., who stopped for gas Wednesday off Interstate 80 in Des Moines, Iowa, on her way to Ames, Iowa.

Jeff Cox, manager of Southtown Liquors in Albert Lea in southern Minnesota, near the Iowa border, said the store had seen a steady stream of customers amid snow and freezing rain.

"They don't want to be stuck home with nothing," Cox said.

The winter blast follow a weekend storm that dropped record snowfall and interrupted holiday shopping and travel on the East Coast. Tens of thousands of customers in West Virginia and Virginia remained without power Wednesday.

Holidays travelers and commuters alike were stranded in the Northeast on Wednesday after an electrical problem forced Amtrak to halt trains in and out of New York's Penn Station. The outage affected service as far south as Washington and as far north as Boston.

Power was restored after about three hours.
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