World

2 powerful storms stymie U.S. travel ahead of Thanksgiving

A day after bringing havoc to the Rocky Mountains, a powerful winter storm rolled across the Midwest on Wednesday, threatening to scramble U.S. Thanksgiving plans for millions of people during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.

Weather blamed for 1 death and hundreds of cancelled flights

Snow falls along the Interstate 5 freeway at the Tejon Pass as travellers try to get in and out of Southern California for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Wednesday. Plows were running and police were guiding traffic in an attempt to keep the freeway open as long as possible. (David Crane/The Orange County Register via AP)

A day after bringing havoc to the Rocky Mountains, a powerful winter storm rolled across the Midwest on Wednesday, threatening to scramble U.S. Thanksgiving plans for millions of people during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.

The storm, which was blamed for one death and hundreds of cancelled flights, pushed east into South Dakota, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It dropped close to 30 centimetres of snow in some areas, even as the weather system weakened and headed toward New York and Pennsylvania, the National Weather Service said.

But the West was not free of heavy weather. A "bomb cyclone" caused by a rapid drop in air pressure brought snow to the mountains and wind and rain along the California and Oregon coasts. Drivers on Interstate 5 near the Oregon-California border spent 17 hours or more in stopped traffic as blizzard conditions whirled outside. Some slept in their vehicles.

"It's one of those things, you couldn't make it up if you tried," National Weather Service meteorologist Brent Hewett said of back-to-back storms forming around the holiday.

Christina Williams and her 13-year-old son, who live in Portland, Ore., got stuck in the storm as they tried to drive to the San Francisco area for Thanksgiving. Williams said she and other stranded drivers all around her connected on Twitter using weather-related hashtags and began to communicate to find out what conditions were like in other areas.

"There were spinouts everywhere. There were trucks that were abandoned. And every time we stopped and started moving again, there were people who couldn't start moving again," Williams said. "Every time we stopped I was like, 'Is this it? Are we going to be here overnight?"'

It took more than 17 hours to reach Redding, Calif., where they got a hotel room, she said.

In this photo provided by the California Department of Transportation, cars and trucks are in stopped traffic on Interstate 5 near Dunsmuir, Calif. (California Department of Transportation via AP)

Snow and downed trees and power lines closed roads. Others were reduced to a single lane, transportation officials said.

Northbound lanes of Interstate 5, which runs parallel to the coast, were reopened later Wednesday from Redding all the way to the Oregon border. The southbound lanes at Ashland, Ore., reopened earlier in the day.

Transportation officials and other agencies tried to communicate the seriousness of the storm, but many drivers were still caught by surprise, said Don Anderson, deputy director of the California Department of Transportation in Redding.

Minneapolis awoke to as much as 23 centimetres of snow. Drivers were warned to stay off the roads at least until the winds died down.

"If you can wait a little bit today, the better off you'll be because the roads will be being cleared, and our snow is pretty much wrapping up," said Tyler Hasenstein, a weather service meteorologist in Minneapolis.

A resident blows snow from a sidewalk in Minneapolis on Wednesday. Blinding snow was falling fast in southern Minnesota. (David Joles/Star Tribune via AP)
Szymon Lobocki, a rocket engineer from Denver, clears off his Subaru to drive to work in a south suburb as a storm packing snow and high winds sweeps in over the region Tuesday. The winter blast is expected to further complicate travel Wednesday. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

At the city's main airport, Delta Air Lines filled de-icing tanks, called in extra flight dispatchers and assigned some of its 20 in-house meteorologists to focus on the forecast.

Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said three runways were open Wednesday, but Federal Aviation Administration data showed that travellers were still experiencing delays of more than an hour.

At Chicago's O'Hare Airport, one of the nation's busiest, the FAA said heavy traffic was causing delays of up to 30 minutes and rising. Airlines worried that things could get worse if winds picked up. In the city's Loop business district, high winds peeled a wooden sign off scaffolding at Willis Tower. The sign slammed into two vehicles and smashed a window, hurting a cab driver, who was taken to a hospital with an arm injury, police said.

Travellers queue during the Thanksgiving holiday travel rush at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Travellers were being warned of high winds and urged to check flight status. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)

The northern reaches of Wisconsin also saw 17 to 25 centimetres of snow, with more coming down. The Milwaukee airport reported wind and rain, but there was no snow within a hundred miles of the city.

On Tuesday, weather-related damage and delays were widespread.

About 25 centimetres of snow mixed with winds that limited visibility and cancelled about 30 per cent of the 1,600 average daily flights at Denver's main airport.

Southwest Airlines cancelled about 200 flights. Spokesman Brad Hawkins said it would take a couple of days to rebook stranded passengers on other flights because there are few empty seats during the pre-Thanksgiving travel crush.

About 1,100 people spent the night at the airport, including many cadets from the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs who either missed flights or wanted to get to the airport before road conditions deteriorated, airport spokeswoman Alex Renteria said.

Airport workers handed out blankets, diapers, baby formula, toothbrushes and toothpaste to passengers who camped out on floors and in chairs.

The storm dumped nearly 1 metre of snow in parts of northern Colorado and closed long stretches of highways there and in Wyoming. One person was killed, when a tractor-trailer jackknifed and was hit by two other trucks on Interstate 70 near the ski town of Vail.

'Coast-to-coast storm'

Before it's over, the system's effects could extend all the way to New England, where a chance of snow was possible over the weekend, said Alex Lamers, another weather service meteorologist.

"That could be a coast-to-coast storm," he said.

In New York, the system could mean disappointment for fans of the larger-than-life balloons flown at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Organizers prepared for the possibility of grounding the iconic balloon characters because of 64 to 81 km/h wind gusts in the forecast. Rules adopted after several people were injured by a balloon years ago require the balloons to be flown lower or not at all if sustained winds exceed 37 km/h and gusts exceed 54 km/h. The decision will be made on parade day.

Jets wait to take off after a pre-Thanksgiving holiday snowstorm caused more than 460 flight cancellations at Denver International Airport on Tuesday. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

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