Blizzard cripples travel across nation’s midsection; Omaha area spared

November 26, 2018

A crippling snowstorm fouled the final day of travel over the Thanksgiving weekend, prompting some to cut their holiday visits short and giving others a scare.

Travel ground to a halt and many people were delayed or stranded. Interstates 29, 80 and 70 closed Sunday because of crashes. Thousands of flights were affected as the storm hit major hubs in Chicago and Kansas City.

The Omaha metro area, on the northern edge of the storm, was spared the worst. However, enough snow fell that patchy ice was a problem.

The Dicksons of Omaha were among the final travelers to make it home through northwest Missouri before Interstate 29 closed Sunday afternoon. It reopened in the evening.

“It just became horrendous north of Platte City (Missouri),” but even worse farther north, Rob Dickson said. “The exit ramps were way worse than the main highway.”

North of St. Joseph, Missouri, they crept along at about 20 mph in white-out conditions, Dickson said. Twice they tried to pull off in hopes of finding safe shelter. At the Oregon, Missouri, exit, they feared getting stranded, so they returned to I-29, he said. At Rock Port, a jackknifed semitrailer truck blocked the exit. Two cars behind them slid off the Interstate.

“We’re extremely glad to be home,” he said Sunday evening.

Dickson said the family checked the weather in Omaha before leaving Springfield, Missouri, on Sunday morning. Omaha looked fine. What they didn’t realize, he said, was that a blizzard lay between the two cities.

A number of people cut their holidays short and returned home Saturday to avoid Sunday’s storm.

Deanna Musser was among those. Absent the storm, she would have stayed in Omaha through Sunday, she said.

“We kept watching the weather, and it kept getting worse and worse,” she said. “I thought I better get out of there while I could.”

Her Sunday at home in St. Joseph, Missouri, found her in the heart of the blizzard. Much of the town lost power, and Musser said there was nearly 8 inches of snow on the ground.

“It’s terrible, huge drifts,” she said. “I have (an elderly) golden retriever, and the snow is up to his armpits. Poor thing, he can’t walk.”

Numerous warnings had been issued about the storm, but what made it especially deceptive for travelers was its power, speed and highly changing nature.

Winds gusted to 55 mph with the storm, causing blowing and drifting, according to the National Weather Service.

A distance of 25 miles was the difference between normal winter driving and near white-out conditions.

Eastern Missouri provided an indication of how tightly wound the storm was: A tornado warning was issued about 30 miles from the southern edge of the blizzard warning.

In Nebraska, a half-inch fell in Omaha and 3.6 inches in Lincoln, according to the weather service. Farther south, much higher amounts fell, including 8.5 inches at Fairbury and 9 inches at Tecumseh. In Iowa, 10.5 inches was recorded at Clarinda. The Lincoln Public Schools canceled classes Monday because of slippery streets.

The combination of strong winds and snow contributed to crashes that closed Interstate 80 between Omaha and Lincoln. The 17-mile, 2½-hour closure near Waverly occurred after one semitrailer truck struck another that had jackknifed, said Cody Thomas of the Nebraska State Patrol. The driver of one of the semis was taken to a Lincoln hospital.

The State Patrol responded to about 100 weather-related incidents from midnight through about 6 p.m., Thomas said. That included 20 crashes and more than 70 motorist assists. In western Nebraska near Scottsbluff, four people were hurt when the Chevrolet Equinox they were in went off Highway 71 and rolled. The driver was flown to an area hospital by helicopter, and three children were taken by ambulance.

Across the region, emergency workers took travelers to hotels after their vehicles slid off roadways or crashed.

“We’ve worked quite a few accidents today,” said Mychi Miller, a dispatcher for Richardson County, Nebraska. Most of the crashes were on U.S. Highway 75, and several required getting people to hotels.

“It’s been pretty slick — white-out.”

Many air travelers found themselves stuck or delayed. Nearly 1,300 flights involving U.S. airports were canceled and more than 4,800 were delayed as of 9:45 p.m. Sunday, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware. Most were supposed to be routed through Chicago or Kansas City — areas hit hard by the storm. Several flights between Chicago and Omaha’s Eppley Airfield were canceled and some were delayed.

White-out conditions and snow-covered roadways prevailed from Kansas and southern Nebraska across portions of Iowa and Missouri toward the Great Lakes.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer issued a state of emergency declaration as much of Interstate 70 was closed for most of the afternoon and evening and other roads remained impassable. In southern Iowa, travel wasn’t advised for much of the day. Interstate 29 was closed for hours, and white-out conditions and drifting snow left travelers at a standstill on Interstate 35, according to roads officials there.

The weather service office in Kansas City advised people who had family still in town to keep them there another day because of the dangerous conditions. “Invite them to stay one more night. Driving through blizzard conditions is no way to end the holiday weekend,” the weather service tweeted Sunday morning. Conditions were so bad that Nebraska Furniture Mart closed its Kansas City location Sunday afternoon, no matter that it was Black Friday weekend.

Several churches in the Omaha area canceled services or advised members to use their own judgment before venturing out.

“If your roads are safely passable in the morning, I look forward to seeing you in worship,” pastor Carm Aderman said in an email to members of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church near 61st Street and Western Avenue. “If they aren’t, I look forward to seeing you next Sunday!”

The precipitation was expected to refreeze overnight as temperatures dropped into the midteens.

“Any surface, whether it is a sidewalk or driveway, will be slick,” said Becky Kern, a meteorologist with the weather service.

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