U.S. holiday travel seen difficult as storm hits

CHICAGO Sat Dec 22, 2012 10:45am EST

1 of 14. An automobile sits upside down in the car lot of Mercedes-Benz of Mobile following a winter storm in Mobile, Alabama, December 20, 2012. The first major winter storm of the year took aim at the U.S. Midwest on Thursday, triggering high wind and blizzard warnings across a widespread area, and a threat of tornadoes in Gulf Coast states to the south.

Credit: Reuters/Jon Hauge

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Holiday travel could be a challenge from Michigan to the central Appalachian mountains as a blast of winter weather including heavy snow and high winds hits the region through Saturday, meteorologists said on Friday.

"Right now the Great Lakes are getting hit, from Lake Michigan to the east," said Pat Slattery, spokesman for the National Weather Service. "The big story for most people is it's going to mess travel up completely."

Pittsburgh is expected to take the biggest blow of any major metropolitan area, with 10 to 18 inches possible by Saturday evening. Western New York, including Buffalo, is looking at up to 14 inches, Slattery said.

The weather could be worse next week, with a potentially "really nasty system" that could bring tornadoes along with hail and high winds across the south on Christmas night into next Wednesday, according to Accuweather.com senior meteorologist Henry Margusity. That could stretch from Louisiana through northern Florida.

A "real big snowstorm" is expected for next Wednesday and Thursday, starting in Arkansas and moving north to Maine, with up to a foot of snow in some places. In New Hampshire and Vermont, "There will be snow on the slopes for New Year's Eve weekend," Margusity said.

This week's winter blast is part of the same system that buried parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin in more than a foot of snow on Thursday, shutting down roads and schools.

More than 230,000 homes and businesses remained without power in the eastern half of the United States Friday afternoon, following a series of snow and rain storms, power companies said. The hardest hit states include Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin. This was down from 320,000 earlier in the day.

Friday brought sunny weather to Iowa, and the state's Department of Transportation has "every person and every piece of equipment we have out on the roads," according to state maintenance engineer Bob Younie.

"Salt and the sun is going to be our friend today," Younie said. "I'd like think we're going to get the roads back to pretty drivable conditions."

The storm Thursday contributed to a 25-car accident near Clarion, Iowa, that left three people dead.

The winter storm, named Draco by the Weather Channel, began Tuesday in the Rocky Mountains, marking a sharp change from the mild December experienced by most of the nation. High winds kicked up a dust storm in western Texas on Wednesday leading to one death in a traffic accident near Lubbock.

Chicago got just two-tenths of an inch of snow through midnight, but it was enough to end a record streak of 290 days without measurable snow, according to Accuweather.com.

Other snowfalls set records Thursday, including Madison, Wisconsin, with 13.3 inches, beating a previous record of 4.6 inches for the date set in 2000. Even heavier snow fell in Middleton, south of Madison, which got 19.5 inches, Slattery said.

Also setting a record was Des Moines, Iowa, with 12.4 inches, breaking a record of 4.5 inches set in 1925, according to Accuweather.com.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Richard Chang, Gary Hill)

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