Archive for Thursday, December 24, 2009

Not there yet? Massive storm disrupts last-minute holiday travel in Midwest

December 24, 2009

A slow-moving storm spreading snow, sleet and rain across the nation’s midsection glazed roads and disrupted flights Thursday, making last-minute holiday travel treacherous but promising a white Christmas for some.

The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings for parts of Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Texas. It cautioned that travel would be extremely dangerous in those areas through the weekend and that drivers should pack a winter survival kit including flashlight and water in case of emergency.

Slippery roads were blamed for at least 12 deaths since Tuesday and officials cautioned they would only get worse, particularly after dark.

Winter storm warnings were in effect across the Plains and the Midwest, with a foot or two of snow possible in some areas by Christmas Day. By Thursday afternoon, parts of southeastern Minnesota had already gotten 8 inches.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol closed eastbound Interstate 40 in El Reno because of numerous accidents, but crews were working 12-hour shifts to keep other major highways cleared. Texas Gov. Rick Perry activated military personnel and emergency vehicles to assist motorists. And in North Dakota, Gov. John Hoeven said placed additional state troopers and the National Guard on standby.

Scott Blair, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Topeka, Kan., said the wind was becoming a serious issue, with wind speeds of up to 25 mph and gusts reaching 40 mph.

“The wind is killer, especially when you’re empty,” trucker Jim Reed said during a stop in Omaha, Neb., as he headed to Lincoln to pick up a load of beef before starting his long holiday weekend.

“Anything that’s boxed, like a refrigerator trailer like I have ... becomes like a giant sail in the wind,” he said.

In eastern Kansas, Tony Glaum was traveling with his wife and daughter to his parents’ home north of Manhattan. He said they were thinking about staying overnight, rather than making their usual Christmas Eve trip back home.

Glaum, 43, of Leavenworth, said he and his daughter noticed a biting chill in the air.

“You can certainly feel the air. It feels like it’s stirred up in a weird way,” he said. “It just feels wrong.”

Still, he said, he’s looking forward to a white Christmas: “I think snow would be pretty nice.”

Nearly 100 scheduled flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were canceled Thursday and dozens more were delayed. The Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City shut down one of its three runways and canceled nearly 30 flights. Delays topping two hours were reported at Houston’s Hobby Airport.

Many travelers took the disruptions in stride.

David Teater, 58, and Aaron Mayfield, 29, both of Minneapolis, were flying to Los Angeles on their way to Australia for a diving vacation. They had given themselves an extra day for travel, expecting they would be delayed somewhere along the way, and arrived at the Minneapolis airport with reading material and extra snacks.

“I’m thinking the runway should be cleared,” Teater predicted.

Nick Shogren, 56, and his 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, of Park Rapids, Minn., were flying to Cancun, Mexico, for a 10-day vacation in Isla Mujeres. They drove to Minneapolis on Wednesday, their usual three-hour drive taking an extra hour because of the snowstorm, and stayed at a hotel.

Shogren said they were looking forward to doing nothing but relaxing “if we can just get out of here.”

After dropping off their youngest son at the airport, Theresa and Frank Gustafson of Chaska, Minn., headed to the Mall of America in Bloomington, where shoppers were scarce.

“Now that we’re done getting people everywhere, we’re out enjoying the morning,” said Theresa Gustafson, 45, who was buying last-minute Christmas gifts.

The Gustafsons planned to head home afterward and stay in. They were hoping roads would be clear enough on Christmas for their oldest daughter to make the drive from a nearby town.

The storm began in the southwest — where blizzard-like conditions shut down roads and caused a pileup involving 20 vehicles in Arizona on Tuesday — and spread east and north, causing weather advisories from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Michigan.

Slick, icy roads were blamed for accidents that killed at six people in Nebraska, four in Kansas, one in Minnesota and one near Albuquerque, N.M. A dust storm south of Phoenix set off a series of collisions that killed at least three people Tuesday.

The same system was bringing heavy rain and powerful thunderstorms to parts of the Gulf Coast and farther inland. Officials in Arkansas closed part of Interstate 30 south of Little Rock on Thursday because of flooding after two days of heavy rain. High winds toppled a tree onto a home in Louisiana, killing a man, authorities said.

Strong winds and ice caused power outages in Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa.

The storm forced the closure of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and led Gov. Mike Rounds to cancel travel plans and stay in Pierre for Christmas. Rounds declared a state of emergency Tuesday before the storm even hit.

On Thursday, the governor warned people not to be deceived by the lull in the storm, promising “it will get here.”

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