DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The first major snowstorm of the season began its slow eastward march across the Midwest early Thursday, leaving at least three people dead, creating treacherous driving conditions and threatening to disrupt some of the nation's busiest airports ahead of the holiday weekend.
Forecasters warned that heavy snow coupled with strong winds could create blizzard conditions from Kansas to Wisconsin — and guaranteed a white Christmas in some places — after the storm blanketed the Rocky Mountains earlier in the week.
The storm dropped nearly a foot of snow in Des Moines, but the storm wasn't as dangerous as earlier feared because everyone had good warning of the approaching havoc, said Kevin Skow, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the city. But wind might become a concern, he warned.
"It's starting to taper off," Skow said of the snow early Thursday. "It's soon going to become less of a snow event and more of a wind event."
The airport at Creston, Iowa, recorded the highest winds, with a gust of 53 mph. Skow said wind gusts would grow stronger later Thursday, creating whiteout conditions, before dying down by the evening.
Meteorologist Scott Dergan said the snow cover would drag temperatures much lower in Nebraska and Iowa.
"We're talking single digits," Dergan said. "We may even see some sub-zero temperatures in Nebraska. This cold weather will stick around for several days, maybe until the day after Christmas. So we're definitely going to have a white Christmas."
On the southern edge of the storm system, high winds damaged homes and downed trees in central Arkansas, the weather service said. A powerful storm peeled the roofs off buildings and toppled trucks in Mobile, Ala., but injured no one. Tornado warnings remained in effect in parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama early Thursday.
Iowa native Laurie Harry said the weather probably wouldn't stop her from starting up her car Thursday morning.
"If I need to get into work, I'll be here," said Harry, a manager at a Casey's General Store in the western Iowa town of Atlantic. "We've had snow before. Iowans know what to expect. We're used to it."
Forecasters said the heaviest snow could be expected across a swath extending from northwestern Missouri into Milwaukee, Chicago and Michigan, with predictions of as much as a foot of snow in some areas. Before the storm, several cities in the Midwest had broken records for the number of consecutive days without measurable snow.
The weather service warned of poor visibility due to driving snow in much of the region and warned drivers to stay off roads in some areas. Transportation officials shut down parts of Interstate 29 in Missouri early Thursday, and Interstate 80 in Nebraska remained closed due to blowing snow.
"Just north of Interstate 80 is where the heaviest band of snow set up," Dergan said. "We're just seeing a few flurries this morning, but because of the wind, travel is pretty treacherous, especially into Iowa, as the storm moves east."
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. In southeastern Utah, a woman who tried to walk for help after her car became stuck in snow died Tuesday night. Search and rescue crews on snowmobiles found her buried in the snow just a few miles from her car.
Chicago commuters awoke Thursday to heavy fog and cold, driving rain, and forecasters said snow would hit the Midwestern metropolis by mid-afternoon. Officials at the city's two international airports reported some delays and cancellations but said most incoming and outgoing flights were on time. United Airlines said it would waive change fees for travelers who have to change their plans for travel through O'Hare International Airport.
Hundreds of schools across the affected region canceled classes Thursday because of heavy overnight snow. Kansas City Power & Light reported about 16,000 scattered power outages in northwest Missouri and northeast Kansas.
The moisture was welcome to farmers in the drought-parched region, but Meteorologist Kris Sanders said the storm wouldn't make much of a dent. In Kansas, for example, some areas are more than 12 inches below normal precipitation for the year.
"It's not going to have a big effect, maybe only a half-inch of liquid precipitation. It's not helping us out much," Sanders said.
Sanders said another storm similar to the current one could bring additional snow on Christmas or the day after.