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 Christmas – relatively few compared with 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 in 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 tractor-trailer rigs 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, Iowa State Patrol Col. David Garrison said.
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 crash in Iowa, the storm was blamed for traffic deaths in Nebraska, Kansas and Wisconsin. In southeast 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. Iowa and Wisconsin activated National Guard troops to help rescue stranded drivers.
In Chicago, commuters began Thursday with heavy fog and cold, driving rain, and forecasters said snow was forecast later.
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.