MINNEAPOLIS – A blustery storm spread snow and ice across the U.S. heartland Thursday as Americans rushed to get home for the holidays, grounding flights, stranding drivers on highways and forcing churches to cancel Christmas Eve services.
Up to two feet of snow was possible in some areas by Christmas Day.
Blizzard warnings were issued for Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin, and drivers were encouraged to pack emergency kits before setting out during what is normally one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
The storm was also expected to glaze highways in the East with ice on Christmas.
Slippery roads were blamed for at least 18 deaths this week as the slow-moving storm made its way across the country from the Southwest.
The snowstorm also put the brakes on some last-minute Christmas shopping. At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, some shoppers had entire stores to themselves.
High winds blowing snow across icy roads were a concern elsewhere. Interstate highways were closed in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. Texas Gov. Rick Perry activated military personnel to help drivers. North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven placed additional state troopers and the National Guard on standby.
Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry declared a statewide state of emergency due to what he described as a "record-breaking storm." The state set up shelters in central Oklahoma for motorists stranded overnight and closed all interstate routes and several turnpikes.
The storm closed Oklahoma's biggest airport. Mark Kraneneberg, a spokesman for Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, said there were about 100 stranded passengers and some airport employees were stuck as well.
The storm knocked out power for more than 10,000 residents in Oklahoma Thursday evening.
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, though by Thursday evening that was down to 15 minutes or less. Chicago's O'Hare had hour-long delays and more than 30 cancellations, and Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport canceled most flights Thursday. The weather closed down Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota altogether late Thursday.
Since Tuesday, icy roads have been blamed for accidents that killed at least seven people in Nebraska, five people in Oklahoma, four in Kansas, one in Minnesota and one near Albuquerque, New Mexico.