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White Christmas 'Dream' Looks Nightmarish In Plains

Traffic crawls Wednesday along South Federal Avenue in Mason City, Iowa, as a major snowstorm bears down on the area. Bryon Houlgrave/AP hide caption

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Bryon Houlgrave/AP

Traffic crawls Wednesday along South Federal Avenue in Mason City, Iowa, as a major snowstorm bears down on the area.

Bryon Houlgrave/AP

A major winter storm was sweeping through the nation's midsection on Thursday, causing flight delays and cancellations and snarling road traffic from Texas to Minnesota just as thousands of travelers were trying to make their way to holiday gatherings.

Many churches canceled Christmas Eve services.

"I don't think God wants anyone to get killed or break a hip or break a knee or something," said the Rev. Joseph Mirowski of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration in Mason City, Iowa, where up to a foot of snow and sleet was expected.

The worst of the storm was heading northeast across the region, bringing heavy snow, sleet and rain to a large swath of the Plains and the Midwest. The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings for Kansas, western North Dakota, northern Minnesota and northwestern Nebraska. A foot or two of snow was possible in some areas by Christmas Day.

"As we go into Christmas Day, we expect some very heavy snow and some blizzard-like conditions across parts of the upper Midwest," said Bruce Sullivan, a National Weather Service forecaster.

"With winds expected to increase to over 30 mph, in some spots to over 40 mph, that could produce some white-out conditions for travelers," he said.

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The NWS said travel would be extremely dangerous in affected areas through the weekend and that anyone on the road should take a winter survival kit, including a flashlight and water.

Nearly 100 flights from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport were canceled by midday. By late afternoon, though, a spokesman said most flights were getting out. The Oklahoma City airport shut down one of its three runways and canceled nearly 30 flights.

Two-hour-plus delays were reported at Houston's Hobby Airport, and Chicago's O'Hare had hour-long delays and more than 30 cancellations.

Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride said air travelers should not leave for airports without first checking with their carrier.

"We suggest that they contact their airline by either phone or the Web to find out what the status of their flights are," she said. On Wednesday, more than 200 flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport were canceled, along with about 60 flights out of Midway International Airport, the city's Aviation Department said.

Slippery roads were blamed for at least 14 deaths this week as the slow-moving storm made its way across the country from the Southwest.

Snow began in the northern Plains Wednesday afternoon, after several hours of freezing rain. Weather officials said 2 to 5 inches of snow fell in parts of South Dakota through the evening.

"It looks like snow will become heavy at times overnight and at least into Friday morning," Sioux Falls meteorologist Jeff Chapman told NPR. "We're still looking at those accumulations to get close to where we were looking before — anywhere from 12 to 18 inches across the area."

South Dakota public safety officials have recommended that motorists there change their holiday plans. They said interstates 90 and 29 will very likely close during the storm.

The storm forced the closure of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and prompted South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds to cancel his own travel plans and stay in Pierre for Christmas.

Road conditions were particularly bad in northwest Kansas, where 8 inches of snow fell overnight. Interstate 70 was ice-packed in western Kansas.

"It's kind of hard to stay on the roads. You've got to go slow," Jason Juhan, a clerk at the Love's truck stop in Goodland, Kan., said Wednesday. "People are just trying to get through and get to where they need to as fast as they can."

Still, he saw an upside. "It's been a few years since we've actually had a white Christmas out this way," he said.

More snow is expected in parts of Kansas, where the state's Emergency Management Division is working around the clock and the National Guard has been put on alert. Slippery roads have been blamed for at least six deaths in Nebraska, Kansas and as far west as New Mexico.

In Limon, Colo., Chris Roof said hard-driving snow had overwhelmed his efforts to plow the lot at the Flying J truck stop.

"I've been plowing here for the last six hours, and I can't keep up with it," he said.

The Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives said more than 1,300 of its customers across the state were without power with temperatures in the low 30s early Thursday.

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, prompting weather advisories from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Michigan. Rain, freezing drizzle and snow that fell in parts of the Plains and Midwest on Wednesday were just a precursor to what was expected later in the week.

The winter blast follow a weekend storm that dropped record snowfall and interrupted holiday shopping and travel on the East Coast. Tens of thousands of customers in West Virginia and Virginia remained without power.

Contributing: South Dakota Public Radio; KCUR in Kansas City, Mo.; with additional reporting from NPR wire services