Ice pellets and snow frustrate holiday travel rush

Passengers check in at Terminal 3 in O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013. The National Weather Service issued a hazardous weather outlook for north central Illinois, northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana on Saturday morning. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

CHICAGO -- A storm with a 2,000-mile footprint threatened to frustrate Christmas travelers from Texas to Nova Scotia with a little of everything Mother Nature has to offer, from freezing rain, ice and snow to flooding, thunderstorms and at least one tornado in the South.

Some of the millions of people hitting the roads and airports Saturday squeaked through before major weather hit.

But as the afternoon wore on, cancellations and delays mounted at major aviation hubs. Forecasters said roads that are passable one minute could become treacherous the next as a cold blast on the back of the storm turns rain to ice and snow.

Making it harder for forecasters to stay a step ahead, the system was a swirl of wintry and springlike weather as it passed over areas in the Midwest.

While ice accumulated in Oklahoma and elsewhere, downing trees and power lines, Memphis, Tenn., enjoyed springlike weather, with temperatures reaching into the 70s.

Authorities said a suspected tornado injured three people and damaged three homes Saturday evening near Hughes, Ark., 35 miles southwest of Memphis. David Cox, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Jackson, Miss., said a second suspected tornado touched down near Dermott in far southeastern Arkansas, injuring two people and damaging about 20 homes.

Powerful winds, too, were causing problems and were being blamed for pushing vehicles off Interstate 40 near West Memphis, Ark., which backed up traffic in both directions for miles.

"This is a particularly strong storm with very warm, near record-breaking temperatures in the East and very cold air in the Midwest, and that contrast is the sort of conditions that are favorable for not only winter weather but also tornadoes," said National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Danaher in College Park, Md.

About 350 flights had been canceled, nationwide, as of 4 p.m., according to aviation tracking website

FlightAware.com. Most of the disruptions affected flights in and out of major hubs like O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, where a steady rain fell Saturday night. Dallas/Fort Worth International and Denver International airports were also affected Saturday.

It's bad timing for the estimated 94.5 million Americans planning to travel by road or air during this holiday season, which runs from Saturday through New Year's Day, and those hitting the roads for last-minute shopping.

Darren Hall, 45, of Raymore, Mo., normally drives to St. Louis for the holiday, but decided not to risk it because of the freezing rain hitting the area and the promise of worse to come. Instead, he waited for a train at Kansas City's Union Station.

"You don't have to deal with all the roads. It's safer, less hassle," Hall said.

The storm had several bands of strikingly different weather.

In the upper Midwest, forecasters were expecting 6 to 8 inches of snow north and west of Chicago and in Wisconsin.

Northern New England was bracing for an ice storm Saturday night into today that forecasters said could bring more than a half-inch of ice to parts Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, which would make roads treacherous and cause widespread power outages.

"We've lined up hundreds of additional out-of-state line workers and tree trimmers in addition to all the GMP employees who will be working until all power is restored," Vermont Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said.

The weather service issued a flash flood watch from Arkansas northeastward through parts of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, with up to 4 inches of rain projected. With falling temperatures, some of that could be freezing rain by Saturday night in the St. Louis area, weather service meteorologist Jon Carney said.

In Indiana, the National Weather Service posted flood warnings along southern and central Indiana streams and predicted the highest flood crests along the East Fork of the White River since April 2011.

While the Midwest and Plains were preparing for ice and snow, residents down South were concerned about tornadoes, which are uncommon this time of year. Tornado watches were in place Saturday night for an area stretching from southern Louisiana to southern Indiana, which was also expected to get buffeted by powerful thunderstorms.

Rain and ice in Oklahoma were blamed for two fatal traffic accidents and thousands of power outages. A 16-year-old boy died early Saturday after his car crashed and overturned on U.S. 64 near Tulsa, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. And Oklahoma City police said a woman was killed Friday night in a collision on a slick roadway.

Forecasters said up to a half-inch of ice could accumulate across the middle of the state.

A woman sleeping in a hotel in western Michigan city of Holland was injured early Friday when a motorist lost control of his car on an icy street and slammed into the wall outside her room, MLive.com reported.

The weather wasn't the only headache maker. A baggage-equipment breakdown lasted for hours at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, creating a backed-up line of travelers that stretched onto the sidewalk outside one of the terminals.

If there is a silver lining, it's that Christmas happens midweek this year, AAA spokeswoman Heather Hunter said.

"When a holiday falls on a Wednesday it gives travelers more flexibility of either leaving the weekend before, or traveling right before the holiday and extending the trip through the following weekend," Hunter said.


Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vt., David Sharp in Portland, Maine, Jeff Amy in Jackson, Miss., Ken Miller in Oklahoma City and Shelley Adler in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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