Midwest coated in sleet, snow and ice

OMAHA — Holiday travelers battled slick, icy roads and flight cancellations and delays on Wednesday as a major winter storm began to spread across much of the nation's midsection — and the worst of the weather was still expected to come.

The slow-moving storm was likely to intensify today as it continued its trek north and east, bringing heavy snow, sleet and rain to a large swath of the Plains and the Midwest. A foot or two of snow was possible in some areas by Christmas Day.

"It's an usually large storm, even for the Plains," said Scott Whitmore, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Topeka.

The storm began in the southwest — where blizzard-like conditions shut down roads and caused a pileup involving 20 vehicles in Arizona on Tuesday — and spread east and north, prompting weather advisories from the Rocky Mountains and part of the Four Corners region to Lake Michigan.

In Colorado, numerous minor accidents prompted state transportation officials to close a section of I-25 from Wellington, Colo., to Cheyenne, Wyo., for several hours.

Parts of Nebraska were coated with ice that was up to a quarter-inch thick and a number of churches were already canceling Christmas Eve services in anticipation of more ice and snow. But residents were still waiting for a blizzard.

"It isn't nearly as bad as they said it would be," said jewelry-store owner Stan Soper of Ord, a town of about 2,300 in north-central Nebraska.

Slippery roads were blamed for at least six deaths — three in accidents on I-80 in Nebraska, two in a crash on I-70 in Kansas and one near Albuquerque.

In Chicago, more than 200 flights at O'Hare International Airport were canceled, along with about 60 flights out of Midway International Airport, the city's Aviation Department said.

The storm forced the closure of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. The National Weather Service in Sioux Falls warned of treacherous travel conditions from Wednesday through Friday night, calling the storm "life threatening."

A tropical jet stream pumping in moisture from the storm's south was likely to cause plenty of snow throughout the Plains and the Midwest, with the biggest accumulations expected from eastern Nebraska to the Upper Mississippi Valley. Freezing rain was possible across parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.