DES MOINES, Iowa – 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.
Iowa and Nebraska took a heavy hit from the storm, with nearly a foot of snow in Des Moines and 8.6 inches in Omaha, Neb.
Thomas Shubert, a clerk at a store in Gretna near Omaha, said his brother drove him to work in his 4-by-4 truck but that 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 Thursday. "I haven't seen many cars on the road. There are a few brave souls out, but mostly trucks and plows."
By sunrise in Des Moines, the snow was starting to taper off, but that would not be the end of it, warned Kevin Skow, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the city.
"It's soon going to become less of a snow event and more of a wind event," Skow said.
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."
Before the storm, several cities in the Midwest had broken records for the number of consecutive days without measurable snow.
Chicago commuters began Thursday with heavy fog and cold, driving rain, and forecasters said snow would hit the Midwestern metropolis by mid-afternoon. Officials at O'Hare International Airport reported some flight delays and more than 90 cancellations. United Airlines said it would waive change fees for travelers who have to change their plans for travel through O'Hare because of the storm.
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.
"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," Dergan said.
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.
The owner of the Norske Nook restaurant and bakery in Osseo, a town in west-central Wisconsin that woke up to at least 10 inches of snow, said "blizzardy" conditions were not unusual for the area and that the weather would not upset her business.
"It's our policy to stay open for the customers," said Jean Zingshiem. "In case someone is stranded they'll have somewhere to go."
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.
Hundreds of schools across the Midwest 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. ComEd said it was preparing additional crews and equipment to cope with expected power outages in northern Illinois.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad closed all state offices until noon.
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.
John Milburn reported from Topeka, Kan. Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo.; Colleen Slevin in Denver; Carla K. Johnson and Jason Keyser in Chicago; Margery Beck in Omaha, Neb.; Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Ark.; and Dinesh Ramde and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.