A highly publicized — and hard to pin down — winter storm is expected to bring several inches of snow, strong winds and near-blizzard conditions to Wichita and the surrounding area today, forecasters say.
Wintry weather is already blamed for two deaths in northwest Kansas late Tuesday night, officials said.
A couple from Fort Smith, Ark., was killed shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday on I-70 in Thomas County when another vehicle spun out of control in the eastbound lane, crossed the grassy median and struck a westbound car on the passenger side. The Kansas Highway Patrol identified the victims as Brandon Trusell, 25, and Keely Trusell, 23.
Rain began falling in Wichita on Wednesday, and should change over to snow today, forecasters say. Snow should continue into Christmas Day.
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Snowfall projections vary widely with this storm: from a dusting to as much as a foot of snow for the Wichita area, depending on who is offering a forecast.
Along with the snow will be winds blowing steadily at 30 to 35 miles per hour, with gusts pushing higher still.
"It's going to be near-blizzard or blizzard" conditions, said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita.
Snowfall should end early on Christmas Day, but Hayes said it could still be a difficult travel day.
"The main thing is going to primarily be the blowing of the snow that's already on the ground," he said.
The Kansas Division of Emergency Management activated the state emergency operations center Wednesday and will staff it around the clock through at least today, authorities said.
"We'll be here to stay in contact with county emergency managers and coordinate any assistance the counties may need to protect the health and safety of Kansans," deputy director Angee Morgan said in a statement.
The Kansas National Guard, meanwhile, notified about 200 members Wednesday to be ready to open armories as shelters and to mobilize equipment for clearing roads. The state has 56 armories.
Roads were completely snow-packed and icy Wednesday from Russell County to the Colorado state line and north to Nebraska, and from Garden City north to the Nebraska state line, authorities said. Roads are partly snow-packed and icy east from Russell County to just west of Salina and east from Garden City to U.S. 183.
Snow was already accumulating Wednesday in Ellis, Graham, Gove, Logan, and Sheridan counties. Gove and Logan counties reported 6 inches by early afternoon.
As the snow and ice make their way to the Wichita area, streets will remain untreated by the Kansas Department of Transportation until after the weather strikes.
"We chose not to pre-treat the roads because the rain and fog make it ineffective. It just washes away," said KDOT spokesman Tom Hein.
Another reason not to pre-treat is because of budget concerns, he said.
"We are being very judicious," he said. "Both with employees and resources."
Once the snow and ice hit, KDOT will work around the clock in 12-hour shifts until they feel the roads are safe and the snow and ice has passed, even if that means working over Christmas.
"We can't be everywhere we need to be once the weather hit, but we'll be as ready as we can be," Hein said.
City of Wichita crews began treating the streets Wednesday at 8 p.m. and will work around the clock if needed. They will focus on the emergency snow routes, which include Kellogg from Edgemoor to 127th Street East.
KDOT is responsible for the remainder of Kellogg, I-135, I-235, K-96 and all access ramps.
To check on road conditions around the state, go to www.ksdot.org or call 800-585-ROAD (7623).