Heavy snow and ice storm plastering Midwest, mid-South: ‘Travel could be impossible’

A major winter storm has begun to deliver a wintry mess to more than 90 million Americans, with winter storm watches and warnings stretching from New Mexico to Maine. Ice storm warnings cover parts of the Mississippi and Tennessee valleys, too, where upward of a half-inch of glaze will bring down trees and power lines and render travel virtually impossible.

Cities including Dallas, Memphis and Little Rock are likely to experience ice storm conditions and face potential power outages, while regions farther north will pick up heavy snow. A light glaze of ice could extend as far southeast as Houston Thursday, which was placed under a winter weather advisory.

Already, the storm has brought at least a half foot of snow in Denver and Chicago. More than 10 inches of snow is expected across some parts of the Midwest, including St. Louis, Indianapolis, Toledo and Detroit, through Thursday.

“The storm will be prolonged, with several rounds of winter weather lasting through Thursday for portions of the central U.S. before shifting to the interior Northeast,” the National Weather Service said.

In the interior Northeast, more than 10 inches of snow could fall in Buffalo, Syracuse, N.Y., and Burlington, Vt., late Thursday into Friday.

A messier stew of sleet, freezing rain, snow and rain is anticipated in eastern New England on Friday, where crashing temperatures may induce a flash freeze that could turn roads into skating rinks.

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Meanwhile, flooding is a possibility on the system’s warm side in the Deep South. Thursday will feature isolated severe thunderstorms across southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southwestern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, with tornado activity a possibility.

Only days ago, a historic nor’easter plastered the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic with up to 30 inches of snow, the storm giving Boston the snowiest calendar day in the city’s recorded history, with nearly two feet having fallen.

In Texas, where a deadly winter storm last year caused a massive power grid failure, local officials expressed cautious optimism about their preparation.

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“The city is in a much better position as far as our preparation and readiness for this event,” the director of the Dallas Office of Emergency Management, Rocky Vaz, said Tuesday, according to local reports. The city also announced a temporary shelter at Fair Park’s Automobile Building for those experiencing homelessness.

Adler added: “This does not appear to be going to be as extensive or as long as what we saw in the past, but it's going to get cold tonight.”

Still, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said “no one can guarantee” that the storm will not cause power blackouts.

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“But what we will work and strive to achieve — and what we’re prepared to achieve — is that the power’s going to stay on across the entire state,” he said during a briefing.

In Memphis, ahead of updates from Weather Service that areas are under ice storm warnings, the office of emergency management said to “take time now to prepare for power outages.”

At least three universities in Kansas — Wichita State University, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas — announced campus closures because of the weather, with KU encouraging community members to stay off grounds to allow for snow removal.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) issued a disaster declaration and activated about 130 members of the state National Guard to help deal with expected blizzard conditions. The state Transportation Department also planned to deploy more than 1,800 trucks and equipment to treat roads and respond to weather emergencies, the state said.

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Chicago Public Schools said it would remain open Wednesday — while other area schools opted for virtual learning for the day — though CPS said it would soon make a decision about Thursday.

Officials in St. Louis County said their top concern was power outages, the “care of our residents should they lose power in these cold temperatures, and stranded motorists,” said Michele Ryan, the county’s emergency management director.

She encouraged people to check road conditions if going out was critical — but to largely avoid travel for the next two days.

Ryan, like other leaders nationwide, urged preparedness, especially if venturing out: Remember to fill gas tanks, and keep emergency kits and chargers on hand.

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“But mostly, I would encourage all of you to stay home — we’ve become very good at working from home over the last two years,” she said. “If you have that ability, please take advantage of it.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R), who also activated the state’s National Guard ahead of the storm, wrote on Twitter that “severe winter weather isn’t something we are strangers to here in the State of Missouri, but we must be prepared for the worst.”

Nearly 2,800 flights had been canceled Wednesday, with nearly 1,000 delays within, in or out of the United States, according to FlightAware, which compiles commercial aviation data.

Most cancellations — more than 220 — were affecting Chicago’s O’Hare, with St. Louis, Detroit, Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth’s airports experiencing more than 380 cancellations combined as of Wednesday morning, according to the site. Chicago O’Hare said airlines had proactively canceled more than 360 flights because of weather conditions in the area.

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More than 2,200 flights were already canceled for Thursday as well, according to FlightAware.

Midday Wednesday, the ingredients for the storm were coming together as it was snowing in Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit. The heaviest snow had shifted east of Chicago but it was still snowing gently amid gusty winds and frigid temperatures.

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Snowfall totals through midday Central time included:

  • 9 to 11 inches around Denver
  • 9 to 11 inches around Peoria, Ill.
  • 5 to 9 inches around Chicago
  • 6 inches around Wichita
  • 4 to 6 inches around Jefferson City and Columbia, Mo.
  • 2 to 4 inches around Kansas City and St. Louis

To the south, flood watches blanket much of northern and central Alabama, northwest Georgia, middle Tennessee and southeast Kentucky, where a heavy rainfall will persist through Thursday. Rain was already coming down across most of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, and will total up to 3 to 5 inches.

Freezing rain was falling in northeast Oklahoma and southern Missouri at daylight Wednesday, with sleet to the north. After an initial pulse of moisture shifts into the Midwest, a second, more vigorous disturbance will ride along the front as if on rail tracks late Wednesday. That will drop moderate rainfall into a subfreezing air mass banked in northern Texas. Freezing rain will occur between San Angelo and north of Dallas-Fort Worth near the Red River by Wednesday evening.

“Power outages and trees damage will be possible due to the ice,” the Weather Service wrote in its winter storm warning for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

On Thursday, the freezing rain will expand northeast along the Ohio River, with significant ice buildup in northern Kentucky and southern Ohio. Some freezing rain may even make it into Pennsylvania.

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A glaze to a quarter inch of ice is possible in cities such as Dallas, Memphis and Lexington, Ky., with up to a half-inch possible in Jonesboro, Ark., Louisville and Evansville, Ind. Cincinnati could see a moderate glaze too.

“Travel is strongly discouraged,” wrote the National Weather Service in Memphis. “If you must travel, keep extra blankets, food, water and a flashlight in your vehicle in case of an emergency. Prepare for possible power outages.”

Models indicate that some freezing rain is possible in the Northeast and interior Mid-Atlantic in the Friday time frame, but details on locations that will be most affected and the specific timing are still coming together.

To the north of the ice zone, heavy snow will fall in a swath from northeast Oklahoma through Missouri and all the way past the Great Lakes and into New England. Cities including St. Louis, Indianapolis, Toledo, Cleveland, Syracuse and Rochester, N.Y., could all wind up with double-digit snowfall totals.

The snow will come in two waves; after the ongoing snow in the Upper Midwest moves off Wednesday evening, a second round will develop, displaced slightly to the south Wednesday night into Thursday from roughly northeast Texas and eastern Oklahoma into northern Ohio. That second wave will sweep across the interior Northeast on Thursday night into Friday.

There may be pockets along the Interstate 70 corridor of eastern Missouri, southern Illinois and Indiana that wind up with nearly a foot and a half when all is said and done, as both waves of snow will transit those areas. If Indianapolis receives a foot or more, it will mark the city’s sixth-heaviest snowstorm on record. Bookkeeping there dates back to World War II.

Chicago should be on the fringe of the heaviest snows. While it gets hit by the first wave, the second wave should miss to the south. Amounts will drop sharply on the north side of town. Porter County in Indiana may see 8 inches or more, while Kenosha, Wis., about an hour’s drive from the Chicago metro area, will see just an inch or two.

The long-duration event could feature snowfall through very early Friday in northern Ohio, meaning a 36-hour window of inclement weather. Northern New England will see moderate to heavy snows possibly topping a foot on Thursday night and Friday, but precipitation should clear the coast Friday night.

In southern New England, precipitation will begin as rain before transitioning to freezing rain, sleet and snow as temperatures plummet along and behind the front. Any liquid or slush that falls will quickly freeze up late Friday night, making for treacherous travel conditions. Initial rainfall will also preclude effective pretreatment of roadways with salt and other chemicals.

Thereafter, a frigid weekend is store.