DES MOINES, Iowa — The first widespread snowstorm of the season crawled across the Midwest on Thursday, with whiteout conditions stranding holiday travelers and sending drivers sliding over slick roads — including into a fatal 25-vehicle pileup in Iowa.
The storm, which dumped a foot of snow in parts of Iowa and Wisconsin, was part of a system that began in the Rockies earlier in the week before trekking into the Midwest. It was expected to move across the Great Lakes overnight before moving into Canada.
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.
On the southern edge of the system, tornadoes destroyed several homes in Arkansas and peeled the roofs from buildings, toppled trucks and blew down oak trees and limbs Alabama.
In Iowa, 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. Officials said two people were killed and seven injured.
“It’s time to listen to warnings and get off the road,” said Iowa State Patrol Col. David Garrison.
Thomas Shubert, a clerk at a store in Gretna near Omaha, Neb., said his brother drove him to work in his truck, but some of his neighbors weren’t so fortunate.
“I saw some people in my neighborhood trying to get out. They made it a few feet, and that was about it,” Shubert said.
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.
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.
The storm made travel difficult from Kansas to Wisconsin, forcing road closures, including a 120-mile stretch of Interstate 35 from Ames, Iowa through Albert Lea, Minn. Sections of Interstate 80 in Nebraska and Interstate 29 in Missouri that had been closed were reopened Thursday afternoon. Iowa and Wisconsin activated National Guard troops to help rescue stranded drivers.
Those who planned to fly before the Christmas holiday didn’t fare much better.
Shanna Tinsley, 17, and Nicole Latimer, 20, were both headed to the Kansas City area to see their families for the holiday when their flight Thursday morning out of Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport was canceled. Neither cared about a white Christmas, and were hoping to get on another flight later in the day.
“It would be cool I guess, but I’d rather be there than stuck without family with a white Christmas,” Latimer said.
Added Tinsley, “Wisconsin is full of snow, you see it all the time.”
In Chicago, commuters began Thursday with heavy fog and cold, driving rain, and forecasters said snow would hit by mid-afternoon.
Airlines delayed and canceled hundreds of flights out of Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway international airports. Southwest Airlines canceled all of its flights at its Midway hub that were scheduled for after 4:30 p.m., and American Airlines said it was shutting down its O’Hare operations after 8 p.m.
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 FlightAware.com called it “a relatively minor event in the overall scheme of things.”
By comparison, airlines canceled 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 canceled during Superstorm Sandy.
Before the storm, several cities in the Midwest had broken records for the number of consecutive days without measurable snow.
In the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, Kristin Isenhart, 38, said her three kids, ages 9, 5 and 3, were asking about going outside to play after school was canceled for the day.
“They are thrilled that it snowed,” she said. “They’ve asked several times to go outside, and I might bundle them up and let them go.”
As far as the region’s drought, meteorologists said the storm wouldn’t make much of a dent. It takes a foot or more of snow to equal an inch of water, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people lost power in Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska as heavy snow and strong winds pulled down lines. Smaller outages were reported in Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.
“The roads have been so bad our crews have not been able to respond to them,” said Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, which had 13,000 customers without power in central Iowa. “We have giant four-wheel-drive trucks with chains on them, so when we can’t get there it’s pretty rough.”
Tom Tretter and his wife, Pat, had been without power since Wednesday night, and temperatures Thursday were dropping. The retired seniors were shoveling their steep driveway Thursday afternoon and scraping ice off the walkway to their Des Moines home.
“It’s getting cold in the house,” Tom Tretter said, leaning on his shovel in the driveway. “And I’m getting too old for this.”
Blake Landau, a cook serving eggs, roast beef sandwiches and chili to hungry snowplow drivers at Newton’s Paradise Cafe in downtown Waterloo, Iowa, said he has always liked it when it snows on his birthday. He turned 27 on Thursday.
“It’s kind of one of those things where it’s leading up to Christmas time,” Landau said. “We don’t know when we get our first snowfall, and I hope we get it by my birthday. It’s nice to have a nice snowy Christmas.”