Storm dumps snow across central US, leaves some travellers scrambling days before Christmas

David Pitt And Margery Beck, The Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa - The first widespread snowstorm of the season plodded across the Midwestern heartland on Thursday, as whiteout conditions sent drivers sliding over slick roads and some travellers were forced to scramble for alternate ways to get to their holiday destinations.

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.

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.

The storm, which dumped more than 19 inches (482 millimeters) in Wisconsin state capital, was part of a system that began in the west earlier in the week before trekking into the Midwest. It was expected to move across the Great Lakes overnight before moving into Canada.

Most of the cancelled flights were at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway international airports. Aviation officials said Thursday night more than 350 flights had been cancelled 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.

The storm made travel difficult from Kansas to Wisconsin, forcing road closures, including a 120-mile (193-kilometre) stretch of Interstate 35 from Ames, Iowa through Albert Lea, Minnesota. Iowa and Wisconsin activated National Guard troops to help rescue stranded drivers.

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 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.

In Chicago, commuters began Thursday with heavy fog and cold, driving rain. By early evening, high winds and sleet that was expected to turn to snow were making visibility difficult on roadways.

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 called it "a relatively minor event in the overall scheme of things."

By comparison, airlines cancelled 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 cancelled 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, Wisconsin, where more than 19 inches (482 millimeters) of snow fell, Plaza Tavern manager Erica DeRosa was busy shovelling the sidewalk to prepare for Thursday's lunch crowd.

"This is like shovelling wet cement," she said. "But it is super pretty out."