Storm disrupts travel; Triangle to see wet Christmas

Posted December 24, 2009 1:06 p.m. EST
Updated December 24, 2009 11:51 p.m. EST

— A powerful storm spreading snow, sleet and rain across the nation's midsection glazed roads and disrupted flights Thursday, making last-minute holiday travel treacherous but promising a white Christmas for some.

Tar Heel travelers should be able to avoid most of the problems plaguing parts of Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Texas. AAA Carolinas predicted 3 million people would travel in North and South Carolina this week, most of them by car.

The greatest hindrance will be for those trying to drive on Interstate 40 west of Asheville. The highway is closed in both directions between Exit 20 (U.S. 276), 24 miles west of Asheville in North Carolina, and Exit 421 (I-81 Interchange) east of Knoxville, Tenn.

In the Triangle, clouds will move in Christmas Day and rain is likely. Temperatures will be about average for this time of year, topping out in the mid-50s.

Winter storm warnings were in effect across the the Plains and the Midwest, with a foot or two of snow possible in some areas by Christmas Day.

Those headed out of state were encouraged to check conditions before their trip. While flight delays and cancellations were common through the country's mid-section, flights from Raleigh-Durham International Airport had yet to see any back-ups, a spokeswoman said.

Nearly 100 scheduled flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were canceled Thursday and dozens more were delayed. The Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City shut down one of its three runways and canceled nearly 30 flights.

Many travelers took the disruptions in stride.

David Teater, 58, and Aaron Mayfield, 29, both of Minneapolis, were flying to Los Angeles on their way to Australia for a diving vacation. They had given themselves an extra day for travel, expecting they would be delayed somewhere along the way, and arrived at the Minneapolis airport with reading material and extra snacks.

"I'm thinking the runway should be cleared," Teater predicted.

Nick Shogren, 56, and his 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, of Park Rapids, Minn., were flying to Cancun, Mexico, for a 10-day vacation in Isla Mujeres. They drove to Minneapolis on Wednesday, their usual three-hour drive taking an extra hour because of the snowstorm, and stayed at a hotel.

Shogren said they were looking forward to doing nothing but relaxing "if we can just get out of here."

The storm began in the southwest - where blizzard-like conditions shut down roads and caused a pileup involving 20 vehicles in Arizona on Tuesday - and spread east and north, causing weather advisories from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Michigan.

Slick, icy roads were blamed for accidents that killed at six people in Nebraska, four in Kansas, one in Minnesota and one near Albuquerque, N.M. South of Phoenix, a dust storm set off a series of collisions that killed at least three people Tuesday.

Strong winds and ice caused power outages in Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa.

The storm forced the closure of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. Rounds declared a state of emergency Tuesday before the storm even hit.