Days before Christmas, blizzard conditions could make travel ‘impossible’ in central Iowa

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A deer runs across a snowy gravel road in Iowa. Photo by Bryon Houlgrave / The Register
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By Donnelle Eller and Noelle Alviz-Gransee, Des Moines Register

Iowans face expected blizzard conditions during one of the heaviest travel periods of the year, with wind chills forecast to drop to minus 45 degrees Thursday and Friday and blowing snow leading to potential whiteouts.

It’s a situation that could quickly turn deadly, officials say.

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The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch for most of Iowa on Thursday and Friday, saying the snow and strong winds will make travel “difficult to impossible.”

As forecasters issued their warnings, the state’s largest energy companies were assuring the Iowa Utilities Board staff that they have enough resources to keep homes warm this winter.

Travel could be hazardous as blizzard conditions hit Iowa Thursday and Friday, officials warn.
Photo by Brian Powers / The Register

The state agency sought assurances after a national regulatory group said Iowans and other Midwesterners are at risk of “energy emergencies” this winter, given power plant retirements, possible natural gas and coal shortages and railroad disruptions.

“We’re confident we will have adequate capacity,” said Tina Hoffman, a MidAmerican Energy spokeswoman.

Hoffman said the state’s largest utility also plans to stage its crews in areas where the blizzard is likely to hit hardest.

“We need energy every day of the year, whether it’s Christmas or New Year’s,” she said. “We’re staffed up and our crews are ready to respond.”

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High winds expected Thursday and Friday

As snow fell across Iowa Monday, the National Weather Service predicted under an inch of accumulation across much of the state. Tuesday will be mostly sunny, but the wind chill-adjusted temperatures are expected to hit minus 10. Snow will begin again Wednesday in northwest Iowa and expand across the state, with high winds Thursday and Friday, forecasters said in a winter storm watch statement.

Iowa State Patrol spokesperson Sgt. Alex Dinkla urged motorists to plan ahead, travel before the storm or wait until it has cleared.

“Don’t take a chance. Don’t travel. We don’t want you to put yourself or others at risk,” Dinkla said.

Justin Glisan, Iowa’s state climatologist, said he expects the state to get hit with dry snowfall — fluffy stuff that can be removed with a leaf blower instead of a shovel. But it also will get whipped around by winds hitting 35 miles per hour or more Thursday and Friday. Visibility could drop to a quarter mile or less.

Those conditions make it difficult to see motorists who slow, stop or pull over by the side of the road, Glisan said.

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“These are not the conditions in which you want to be out on the road,” he said.

Jeff Zogg, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Johnston, said the agency was still working to determine how much snow Iowa could receive from the storm.

Airline passengers could face delays, cancellations

Holiday air travel, which began Sunday, could be delayed, said Kayla Kovarna, a Des Moines International Airport spokesperson. It’s one of the airport’s busiest times, with as many as 65,000 people expected to use the airport between the beginning of this week and year’s end.

Kovarna said the airport, responsible for keeping the runways clear of ice and snow, hasn’t closed due to snowstorms in the 11 years it’s been an independent authority. But airlines may decide to cancel flights because of weather conditions, she said.

And with blizzard conditions expected to hit Minnesota, Missouri and other Midwestern states, delays or cancellations could ripple through the schedule, Kovarna said. She advised travelers to download the app for the airline they’re using to watch for possible delays.

The apps also likely are the best way to reschedule a canceled flight, she said. Even if flights aren’t officially delayed or canceled, it could take longer for trips to begin because the ground crew that de-ices planes also is responsible for getting in place passenger boarding bridges.

Kovarna urged travelers to be patient, giving themselves added time to get to the airport as well as through security.

“The bad weather can create a bah humbug vibe. But remember that everyone is doing their best,” she said.

Be prepared if you travel, or stay home and stay warm

The National Weather Service advises people to limit the amount of time exposed to the extreme cold, and for those who will be traveling to pack a winter safety kit in their car. Glisan and Dinkla said travelers should bring essentials like water, blankets, flashlights, food and fully charged cell phones.

Meanwhile, Iowa utilities say they are confident they can keep Iowans warm at home, despite concerns expressed last month by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a Georgia-based regulatory authority called NERC. It said the winter power reserves of Iowa’s power grid operator are 5% below last winter’s due to nuclear and coal power plant retirements.

The group said the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, known as MISO, is “at risk for energy emergencies during the upcoming winter.” But MidAmerican, Alliant and other Iowa utility leaders said they were prepared, with adequate supplies of natural gas, coal and other fuel to keep the electricity on.

“We expect to have sufficient resources to continue to deliver the reliable energy customers need,” said Morgan Hawk, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, the state’s second-largest power provider.

“Alliant Energy’s generation facilities are designed and engineered to ensure reliable operations in all types of weather and weather extremes,” Hawk said in an email.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at [email protected] or 515-284-8457.

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