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30-car pileup leaves two dead as blizzard blasts upper Midwest

Posted at 4:25 PM, Dec 20, 2012

 (CNN) — Does the end of the world start with a snowstorm?

Probably not, but a blizzard in the upper Midwest is proving potent enough to cut power to tens of thousands of homes and force schools to call it quits from Nebraska to southern Wisconsin Thursday — one day ahead of the official arrival of winter and, as it happens, the predicted Mayan apocalypse.

Blinding snow also is blamed for a 30-car pileup on Interstate 35 near Fort Dodge, Iowa, in which two people died, including a 43-year-old Arkansas woman, Sgt. Scott Bright of the Iowa State Patrol said Wednesday.

As much as another foot of wet, heavy snow is expected in places, accompanied by winds gusting to 50 mph and blowing snow that could reduce visibility to just about zero, forecasters warn.

In Omaha, Nebraska, utility crews struggled overnight — sometimes in near whiteout conditions — to restore power to 38,500 customers left in the dark by the storm, according to the Omaha Public Power District. The utility urged customers to brace for slow going.

“Assessment crews and repair crews are out in force and will be as long as it takes to get through storm and all is cleaned up,” said Omaha Public Power District spokeswoman Paula Lukowski.

In neighboring Iowa, more than 30,000 customers were without power, most of them in the Des Moines area, according to MidAmerican Energy.

The storm — the first blizzard of the season — made travel treacherous throughout the region. Nebraska authorities closed much of snow-packed Interstate 80 through the state Thursday morning as blowing snow dangerously reduced visibility.

I-80 also was closed around Des Moines, Iowa, Bright said.

“When the winds start to blow you can see about 5 feet in front of your vehicle” he said. “We’ve had major issues all over the place. We got around 10 to 12 inches throughout the state and it’s a wet snow. We have around an inch of ice on our roadways.”

He warned that even though conditions might not seem so bad around people’s homes, they should not take that as a signal that the storm is over.

“It seems people are seeing the sun and venturing out, but it’s not going to get hot enough to melt the ice from the roadways,” he said. Department of Transportation workers are “out and they’re plowing the roadways, but we’re having 50 mph wind gusts that just blows the snow right back.”

Close to 100 accidents had been reported in Iowa by late Thursday morning, Bright said, “and we have a lot of jackknifed semis, which shut the roadway down.”

Thick snow also blanketed the roads and swirled in the frigid air as CNN iReporter Kevin Cavallin drove through Ames, Iowa, late Wednesday night.

Occasional flashes of lightning illuminated the snow-covered scene, punctuated by windy gusts of up to 40 miles per hour, as Iowa shivered under its first significant snowfall of the year.

Fellow CNN iReporter Clarence Smith in Des Moines said it was the most snow he’d seen since 2009 — and he warns its wet, heavy consistency was going to add to the challenges for motorists.

“I was just cleaning off my car and it is so wet, it is like plaster. It doesn’t come off easily,” he said. “At one point I was hitting it with a snow scraper, you can say chiseling, basically.”

And while many Iowans may be cursing the weather Thursday as they slip and slide around, Smith points out that the state has enjoyed a record period without snow.

CNN iReporter Ron Packer’s morning drive to work, usually 25 minutes, was doubled by the slower traffic in Kansas City, Missouri, he said.

“Most of the preparation for this weather is mental,” Packer said. “Many people ‘forget’ how to drive in winter weather when the first snow comes around. As a native Californian, I had to go through that learning curve!”

Kathleen Barrett, a CNN iReporter driving from Colorado to Wyoming Wednesday, called road conditions “horrible.”

“I could not see in front of me,” Barrett said. Dirt and rocks put on the highway to keep vehicles from sliding cracked her windshield as she crept along at 10 mph, she said.

For CNN iReporter David Bell and three of his friends, the conditions were just too bad to continue driving home to Lincoln, Nebraska.

They holed up in a hotel overnight on their way back from a ski trip in Colorado after seeing several accidents on the interstate and highways.

“We knew the roads were icy, so we were driving slow,” he said. “We could see about 100 yards, sometimes less. When the winds would gust the visibility would drop to 50 feet. There was a lot of snow, and we were driving east and the wind was blowing from the north, and it didn’t help at all.”

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency, put the National Guard and state patrol on standby and closed state offices to the public in 20 counties most likely to be affected by the storm. Employees were still expected to report for work.

As much as 7 inches was already on the ground Thursday morning in parts of southern Wisconsin, with as much as another foot on the way during the storm’s predicted Thursday afternoon peak.

The Wisconsin State Patrol and National Weather Service urged people to avoid traveling.

Blizzard warnings were up Thursday for portions of Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin and virtually all of Iowa. Winter storm warnings extended further into Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as into Michigan and Indiana.

Most airports were operating normally, the Federal Aviation Administration reported. One major exception was O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where incoming flights were running nearly two hours behind because of high winds, the FAA said. Airlines canceled more than 200 flights at O’Hare Wednesday.

Southwest Airlines has canceled all flights out of Chicago’s Midway starting at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Southwest has between 200 and 220 flights there on normal days.

The storm is expected to slide over New England by Friday.

CNN’s Stefan Simons, Jim Kavanagh, Jareen Imam, Laura Smith-Spark, Carma Hassan and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.

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