CHICAGO – A storm with a 2,000-mile footprint threatened to frustrate Christmas travelers from Texas to Nova Scotia with a little of everything Mother Nature has to offer, from freezing rain, ice and snow to flooding, thunderstorms and at least one tornado in the South.
Some of the millions of people hitting the roads and airports Saturday squeaked through before any major weather hit, but as the afternoon wore on, cancellations and delays started to mount at major aviation hubs. Forecasters said roads that are passable one minute could become treacherous the next as a cold blast on the backend of the storm turns rain to ice and snow.
Making it harder for forecasters to stay a step ahead, the system was a weird swirl of wintry and springlike weather as it passed over areas in the Midwest. While ice was accumulating in Oklahoma and elsewhere, downing trees and power lines, Memphis, Tenn., was enjoying temperatures reaching into the 70s.
Authorities said a suspected tornado injured three people and damaged three homes Saturday evening near Hughes, Ark., just 35 miles southwest of Memphis. And David Cox, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Jackson, Miss., said a second suspected tornado touched down near Dermott in far southeastern Arkansas, injuring two people and damaging about 20 homes.
Powerful straight-line winds, too, were causing problems and were being blamed for pushing vehicles off of Interstate 40 near West Memphis, Ark., which backed up traffic in both directions for miles.
“This is a particularly strong storm with very warm, near record-breaking temperatures in the East and very cold air in the Midwest, and that contrast is the sort of conditions that are favorable for not only winter weather but also tornadoes,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Danaher in College Park, Md.
The worst of the storm was only supposed to hit Chicago late Saturday, giving those traveling from, to and through the Windy City a window at the start of the holiday rush.
About 350 flights had been canceled nationwide as of 4 p.m. CST, according to aviation tracking website FlightAware.com. Most of the disruptions were affecting flights in and out of major hubs like O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where a steady rain was falling Saturday night. Dallas/Fort Worth International and Denver International airports were also affected Saturday.
It’s bad timing for the estimated 94.5 million Americans planning to travel by road or air during this holiday season, which runs through New Year’s Day, and those hitting the roads for some last-minute shopping.
The storm had several bands of strikingly different weather.
In the upper Midwest, forecasters were expecting 6 to 8 inches of snow north and west of Chicago and in Wisconsin.
It was already bringing significant ice accumulations to Oklahoma, southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, splitting trees and snapping power lines. That was expected to change over to snow by Saturday night.
Northern New England was bracing for an ice storm Saturday night and into today that forecasters said could bring more than a half-inch of ice to parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.