|Snow blows across US Highway 218 as near whiteout conditions begin in Waterloo, Iowa, December 20, 2012. REUTERS/Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier/Handout
CHICAGO - The first major winter storm of the year hit the U.S. Midwest on Thursday bringing a blizzard to the Plains and a possible tornado to Alabama as well as leaving around 400,000 customers in 13 states without electricity.
“There are blizzard warnings in effect from southeastern Nebraska through much of Iowa into Wisconsin,” said Bruce Terry, a senior National Weather Service forecaster at the HydroMeteorological Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
“It’s going to be very windy with considerable blowing and drifting of snow,” he said, calling the pre-Christmas storm “a major winter snow storm event for the Midwest and western Great Lakes.”
Accumulations of up to a foot (30 cm) of snow were expected in some areas, Terry said, adding there was a potential for severe weather on the so-called “warm side” of the storm in the U.S. southeast.
Blowing snow led to school closures in parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, plus the closure of all state government offices in Iowa. Storms in those four states left around 130,000 homes without power.
“Thunder” snow was reported in Iowa during Wednesday night, especially in southeastern Iowa, as thunder and lightning accompanied the storm as it trekked across the state.
“At this point the storm is starting to pull slowly away from the state, but we still have widespread snow across much of Iowa,” says Kevin Skow, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “That should slowly taper off during the mid-morning hours from west to east.”
One suspected twister damaged buildings, snapped trees, downed power lines and flipped vehicles near downtown Mobile, Alabama, early on Thursday, but there were no reports of injuries, authorities said.
“The potential is there certainly for some isolated tornadoes,” Terry said, referring to a broad swath of Gulf of Mexico coast and inland territory stretching from southeast Louisiana through the western Florida Panhandle.
While the heavy snow in the Upper Midwest will create potentially dangerous travel conditions, meteorologist Jeff Masters said it put an end to this year’s “record-length snowless streaks in a number of U.S. cities.”
Writing on his website weatherunderground.com, Masters said the storm would also provide “welcome moisture for drought-parched areas of the Midwest.”
The winter storm, named Draco by the Weather Channel, began Tuesday in the Rocky Mountains, marking a dramatic change from the mild December so far in most of the nation.
In western Nebraska, the storm prompted the closure of a long stretch of Interstate 80 late Wednesday as blowing snow reduced visibility and caused treacherous driving conditions.
In Colorado, Interstate 70 was also closed east of Denver all the way to western Kansas due to high winds, wind-driven snow and reduced visibility, authorities said.
High winds kicked up a dust storm in west Texas on Wednesday, leading to at least one death in a traffic accident near Lubbock.
Power companies reported electrical outages in Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.