TOPEKA, Kan. – A major winter storm lumbering across the nation's midsection promised a white Christmas for some but brought headaches for residents without power and travelers crawling along slick, icy roads and dealing with canceled and delayed flights.
The worst of the storm was expected to hit the region Thursday and Friday, bringing heavy snow, sleet and rain to a large swath of the Plains and the Midwest. A foot or two of snow was possible in some areas by Christmas Day.
"It's kind of hard to stay on the roads. You've got to go slow," said Jason Juhan, a clerk at the Love's truck stop in Goodland, Kan. "People are just trying to get through and get to where they need to as fast as they can."
Still, he saw an upside: "It's been a few years since we've actually had a white Christmas out this way."
Snow began falling before sunrise Wednesday in northwest Kansas, after freezing rain had already iced up roads. A stretch of Interstate 70 in western Kansas was snowpacked by mid-afternoon, and state officials warned that travel would be almost impossible in northeast Kansas by Thursday afternoon.
"It's an unusually large storm, even for the Plains," said Scott Whitmore, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Topeka.
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, prompting weather advisories from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Michigan. Rain, freezing drizzle and snow that fell in parts of the Plains and Midwest on Wednesday were just a precursor to what was expected later in the week.
The biggest accumulations of snow were expected from eastern Nebraska to the Upper Mississippi Valley. Freezing rain was possible across parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.
The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings early Thursday for Kansas, western North Dakota and northern Minnesota. it cautioned that travel would be extremely dangerous in those areas through the weekend and that anyone taking to the road should take a winter survival kit including flashlight and water in case of emergency.
Slippery roads were blamed for at least six deaths — three in accidents on Interstate 80 in Nebraska, two in a crash on I-70 in Kansas and one near Albuquerque, N.M. South of Phoenix, a dust storm set off a series of collisions that killed at least three people Tuesday.
Early Thursday, nearly 100 scheduled flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were canceled and dozens more were slated as delayed, according to the airport's Web site. Scheduled flights out of Bismarck Airport did not appear to be significantly disrupted.
On Wednesday, more than 200 flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport were canceled, along with about 60 flights out of Midway International Airport, the city's Aviation Department said.
Mollie Sheridan, a 30-year-old artist from Philadelphia, had planned to fly to Ohio to be with her family for Christmas. Instead she was trying to sleep on a row of seats at Midway after Southwest Airlines canceled dozens of flights, including hers. She said her father was driving to Chicago to pick her up.
"I'm not that frustrated," Sheridan said. "I have a dad who loves me who's coming to get me. It hasn't spoiled my Christmas."
With temperatures in the low 30s early Thursday, the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives said more than 1,300 customers statewide were without power.
The storm forced the closure of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, and prompted that state's governor, Mike Rounds, to cancel travel plans and stay in Pierre for Christmas. Rounds declared a state of emergency Tuesday before the storm even hit.
The winter blast follow a weekend storm that dropped record snowfall and interrupted holiday shopping and travel on the East Coast. Tens of thousands of customers in West Virginia and Virginia remained without power.
Associated Press Writers Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., Dirk Lammers in Sioux Falls, S.D., Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines, Iowa, and Caryn Rousseau and Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.