CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Midwest braced for a massive and potentially dangerous winter storm on Monday with up to two feet of snow and strong winds that could make travel virtually impossible.
The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning and hazardous weather outlook for the Chicago area, with wind gusts as high as 50 miles per hour and wind chills as low as three below zero Tuesday night.
The storm could be the biggest since a 1967 blizzard paralyzed the city, Chicago officials said.
The system is also expected to bring ice storms Monday night through early Wednesday for an area that includes the Ozarks in Missouri and Arkansas, as well as St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and New York, according to weather.com. Oklahoma and Missouri both declared a state of emergency.
United and Continental Airlines are allowing travelers affected by the weather in the Midwest and Northeast to change flights without fees from January 31 through February 3.
In the south, severe thunderstorms with damaging wind gusts will race eastward from eastern Texas to Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, according to weather.com.
“When everything is said and done, the storm may well impact a third of the population of the United States; approximately 100 million people,” wrote editorial meteorologist Tim Ballisty of weather.com.”
Chicago officials urged residents to stock up on food and medicine in advance of the storm, which could cause flooding from 25-foot waves on Lake Michigan.
Snow is expected to begin later on Monday with several inches possible in northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota, according to Joel Burgio, senior agricultural meteorologist for Telvent/DTN. Freezing rain is predicted for Indiana.
Late Monday night, a storm system will develop over the southern plains that will move northward Tuesday and produce heavy snow and strong winds in eastern Kansas, northern and central Missouri, southeast Iowa, northern and central Illinois and southern Wisconsin and Michigan, Burgio said.
Totals of more than 18 inches are possible Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday afternoon, especially near Lake Michigan, according to the National Weather Service, and city officials cited forecasts of as much as two feet. The Weather Service called the storm “dangerous, multifaceted and potentially life-threatening.”
“Conditions will rapidly deteriorate from north to south across the region Tuesday afternoon with travel likely becoming virtually impossible at times Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning,” the Weather Service warned. The Service warned that snow will be so heavy at times Tuesday night that plows will not be able to keep up.
The city of Chicago plans to deploy its entire fleet of 274 snow plows, and also is putting plows on garbage trucks.
The snow is expected to continue heavy on Wednesday, with gusts as high as 40 miles per hour, according to the Weather Service.
In Kansas Monday afternoon, icy roads already have contributed to one death, at least ten other crashes and many cars sliding off roadways as a major winter storm began moving in. The Kansas Highway Patrol said Janet Devena, 61, died when she lost control of her car near Kensington, Kansas.
In Idaho, an arctic air mass is expected to push wind chills to 20 below zero and colder across central and eastern Idaho Monday night and Tuesday.
Ranching communities in Upper Snake River Plain and Snake Highlands on the Montana border will be hardest hit with wind chills 45 degrees below zero. The National Weather Service advises that livestock could be exposed to life-threatening conditions if left outside. That region has large cattle operations.
A similar winter freezing wind storm in 1989 killed hundreds of cattle in their tracks, according to officials at the University of Idaho extension office in the eastern part of the state. Cows are beginning to give birth to baby calves in that area, which means the front may prove particularly dire. Officials said some ranchers are already double-feeding and taking what measures they can to protect livestock.
Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Laura Zuckerman and Kevin Murphy, Editing by Greg McCune