Authorities warn holiday travelers roads remain dangerous after deadly Midwest snowstorm

Published 5:16 pm Monday, December 24, 2007

Even as a deadly snowstorm loosened its grip on the upper Midwest, officials warned that holiday travelers still faced treacherous roadways Monday.

At least 11 deaths were blamed on the storm, which led to multi-car pileups that closed parts of several major highways in the Plains and knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses across the Midwest.

Snow and strong wind gusts made for tough driving, but conditions began to ease Monday, when winter storm warnings for parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan were set to lapse.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

However, that wouldn’t necessarily mean safer roads, authorities cautioned.

“The roads aren’t quite as ice-covered but we’re still telling people not to drive unless they have to,” said Sgt. Tim Elve of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office. “The interstate is still slick and the rural roads are really bad.”

Authorities had issued urgent pleas for travelers to remain home Sunday but officials worried that those travelers would insist on driving Monday, regardless of the weather, to get to their destinations for Christmas Eve.

“I know it’s the holidays but we hope people use some common sense when traveling,” said Sgt. Chad Breuer of the Grant County Sheriff’s Department in southwest Wisconsin. “There are a lot of people saying, ’I’ll just leave that much earlier’ but still, the roads are not favorable for traveling.”

The storm rolled through Colorado and Wyoming on Friday, then spread snow and ice on Saturday from the Texas Panhandle to Wisconsin.

Radar showed snow falling across much of Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota on Sunday and moving into parts of Michigan and Indiana.

“Everything is just an ice rink out there,” said Sgt. Steve Selby with the sheriff’s department in Rock County, Wis.

The weather system also spread locally heavy rain on Sunday from the Southeast to the lower Great Lakes.

The area of Madison, Wis., got three to four hours of freezing rain early Sunday. The combination of icy pavement and gusty wind made driving treacherous.

Wind gusting to more than 50 mph uprooted trees in parts of Michigan.

Winds were recorded blowing as fast as 88 mph over Lake Michigan, with gusts of 50 to 68 mph across the Chicago region, according to the National Weather Service.

Because of the wind, airlines canceled more than 300 flights Sunday at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the city Aviation Department said. Municipal officials said the wind had knocked out nearly 170 traffic signals, and there were more than 500 reports of fallen trees and limbs.

More than 11,000 homes and businesses were without power at some point Saturday in Wisconsin because of the freezing rain, ice, gusty wind and heavy snow, utilities said. Michigan utilities reported some 31,000 customers were still without power Monday morning, and in Illinois about 15,000 customers were blacked out.

At least three people in Minnesota, three in Wyoming, three in Wisconsin and one person each in Texas and Kansas were killed in traffic accidents that authorities blamed on the storm.

The fatality in Texas came in a chain-reaction pileup involving more than 50 vehicles, including several tractor-trailer rigs, on Interstate 40, police said. At least 16 people were taken to hospitals, police said.

Many involved in the pileup were holiday travelers, including families with small children not dressed for the weather. Other drivers opened their own Christmas presents to provide warmer clothing for the children.

Authorities believe the pileup, which shut down the highway for most of the day, was caused by near zero visibility in blowing snow and slippery pavement. Multi-vehicle wrecks on Saturday also temporarily blocked sections of I-70 in Kansas and I-29 in Missouri.