Deadly Midwest snowstorm affecting holiday flights

3:57 PM, Dec 20, 2012   |    comments
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Video: Major winter storm slams Midwest

(File photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

CHICAGO -- A killer snowstorm was sweeping across the Midwest and beyond on Thursday, shuttering schools, clogging highways and bottling up airports for the holiday rush.

RELATED | Check airport delays

Three deaths were reported, including a woman in Utah who died after trying to walk for help when her car became stuck in the blizzard.

Blizzard warnings were in effect in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois, according to the National Weather Service. The Weather Channel reported that parts of 20 of the lower 48 states are under winter weather advisories -- as far west as Washington state and as far east as New York state.

The southern edge of the storm system brought winds and damaged homes in Arkansas, the National Weather Service said. Alabama has confirmed that a tornado hit Mobile this morning, but the tornado's length and intensity were still being assessed. Tornado watches remained in place in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

RELATED | Severe weather hits the South

The snowstorm was walloping Iowa, and about a foot of snow had already fallen in Des Moines. Across Iowa, 30,900 customers were without power Thursday morning, including more than 25,000 in the Des Moines area.

Nebraska's largest school district canceled classes because of heavy overnight snow, as did many districts across the region. In many areas drivers were being told to stay off the roads starting Wednesday evening because of whiteout conditions.

Some spots in Iowa and Wisconsin could see a foot and a half of snow by the time the storm winds down Thursday night, according to the weather service.

In southeastern Wisconsin, where a blizzard warning was in effect and winds of up to 45 mph were expected to create whiteout conditions, sheriff's officials said slick conditions led to at least two fatalities late Wednesday when a driver lost control of his car in Rock County, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago.

The weather service was forecasting "thundersnow" in Milwaukee and the surrounding areas, where snow could fall at the rate of 2-3 inches an hour.

Wisonsin Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency, which put the state Emergency Government, National Guard, State Patrol and other agencies at high alert.

The storm forecast promises much-needed precipitation for the drought-plagued regions, but was bad news for holiday travelers.

Expect delays at airports in the path of the storm and ripple-effect delays in other parts of the nation, AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said. The storm will have a direct impact on Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis, he said.

Most of the nation's big airlines responded to the storm's threat by enacting flexible rebooking policies for fliers scheduled to fly into the storm's path.

Chicago's O'Hare is a major hub for both American and United, while Midway is one of the top bases for Southwest. Flights at O'Hare - the USA's second-busiest airport - were being delayed by an average of nearly two hours because of strong winds ahead of the storm, the FAA said. Scores of flights were canceled.

The Des Moines airport's online flight information page shows that all but two of this morning's departures were canceled. In Omaha, more than a dozen of the airport's morning departures were canceled.

If forecasts hold, the region's airports are at risk of significant delays into Friday.

Heavy snow and whiteout conditions also closed interstates and caused driving problems in Utah, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas on Wednesday. On Thursday, several states were reporting numerous traffic accidents, including one fatality in Nebraska.

In Utah, Washington County Sheriff's detective Nate Abbott says the woman and a man were driving when their car got stuck in rural Washington County Tuesday night during the storm that hit the Rocky Mountain region.

He says the pair started walking for help, but the woman couldn't go any further and sought shelter while the man continued on. Search and rescue teams later found her body.

South of the snowstorm, blowing dust led to near-zero visibilities in West Texas, which caused a major car wreck that killed one person.

In the South, AccuWeather was forecasting severe weather. States where the threat is the highest include Alabama, Florida and Georgia, the Storm Prediction Center reported.

"The greatest risk from the storms appears to be damaging wind gusts and flash and urban flooding," AccuWeather meteorologist Eddie Walker said. "However, there is a slight possibility that a few storms can be intense enough to produce a tornado."

Although the Plains and Midwest could do without the travel headaches, precipitation should be welcome.

More than 93% of the high Plains region and 54% of the Midwest are enduring drought conditions, according to Thursday's U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website that tracks drought.

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