Residents across the Midwest and the Plains who made it home for Christmas were digging out on Friday after a fierce snowstorm while those who spent the night in airports and shelters tried to resume their journeys. Meteorologists warned that roads across the region remained dangerous.
The National Weather Service said blizzards would hit parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin through Saturday. The storm had already dumped significant snow across the region, including a record 14 inches in Oklahoma City and 11 inches in Duluth, Minn., on Thursday.
Slippery roads have been blamed for at least 21 deaths this week as the storm lumbered across the country from the Southwest. Ice storm warnings and winter weather advisories were issued for parts of the East Coast on Friday, but the region was largely spared.
Paul Mews, who drove from Faribault, Minn., to a relative's home in Plum City, Wis., on Friday morning, said the first 15 minutes of the 80-mile trip were clear, but a surge of heavy snowfall produced a stretch of near-whiteout conditions.
"It was snow-pocalypse. It was wicked," said Mews, 25. "We thought about turning around and going back."
They decided to continue when the surge passed minutes later.
Others weren't as lucky.
Army Sgt. Mark Matthey was spending Friday night at the Flying J Travel Plaza in Sioux Falls, S.D., after Interstate 90 closed. Matthey, 26, left Fort Bragg, N.C., on Wednesday for his hometown of Spokane, Wash., in hopes of making it by late Friday or early Saturday.
Instead, he spent Friday afternoon drinking coffee, watching TV and making friends at the truck stop. He planned to find a spot to sleep on the floor or in the cab of his truck.
Matthey said he and the other travelers were in decent spirits.
"Everybody has the attitude that you have to play the cards you were dealt," he said. "No use in getting upset about something you can't control."
Interstates also were closed in North Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. Meteorologists warned that massive snow drifts and blustery winds could cause whiteouts across the northern Plains. Officials urged travelers to stay home and pack emergency kits if they had to set out.
In Texas, volunteer firefighters and sheriff's deputies rescued hundreds of people stranded along Interstate 44 and Texas State Highway 287 near Wichita Falls. The area recorded up to 13 inches of snow, said Doug Speheger, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
"It's really been horrible," Wichita County Sheriff David Duke said. "Although we live in North Texas and get a lot of cold weather, we weren't prepared for the significant amount of snow that we've received."
Only two of the sheriff department's vehicles have four-wheel drive, so rescuers used their own pickups and the heavy 5-ton brush trucks normally used to fight fires to get to motorists, many of whom ran out of gas while they were stuck in traffic stalled by the storm.
"It was exciting at first to wake up and go, 'Oh, this will be great. We'll have a white Christmas,"' Wichita Falls Mayor Lanham Lyne said. "Then it kept snowing. As the roads became impassable, then we started to worry."
Even residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area briefly experienced a white Christmas, their first in more than 80 years. Not since Dec. 25, 1926 when 6 inches fell on Dallas and Collin counties had the area had a true postcard-looking Christmas.
But by late afternoon, the 3 inches of snow measured at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on Christmas Eve was all but melted.
Winds were gusting from 45 mph to 60 mph across the Dakotas and Nebraska on Friday. Crews were working to restore power to thousands of customers in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois and Iowa.
The storm also grounded flights at South Dakota's biggest airports. Sioux Falls Regional Airport was closed until Saturday morning at the earliest, manager Dan Letellier told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Flights also were canceled at Rapid City Regional Airport and Pierre Regional Airport. The total number of flights affected wasn't immediately available.
About 200 people were stuck overnight at Oklahoma's largest airport, which closed Thursday afternoon after several inches of snow clogged runways, said Mark Kranenburg, director of the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. The airport reopened Friday morning, but only one runway was operational.
Most of the stranded passengers were gone by Friday afternoon. While some were able to catch flights, many simply went home. Kranenburg predicted it would be two or three days before all three runways were open and flights resumed as scheduled.
The 14 inches of snow in Oklahoma City broke a record of 2.5 inches set back in 1914.
The previous record for Christmas Eve in Duluth, which has gotten more than 22 inches in two days, was 3 inches in 1893, said Kevin Kraujalis, a National Weather Service meteorologist. By the time the storm is over, it could be one of the 10 worst in Duluth's recorded history.
With heavy winds producing snow drifts as deep as 5 feet, "it's awful, it's just awful," Kraujalis said. "It's a big workout just walking outside to check my weather equipment."
Since Tuesday, icy roads have been blamed for accidents that killed at least seven people in Nebraska, five people in Oklahoma, four in Kansas, two in Minnesota and one each in North Dakota, Missouri and New Mexico.