Image: People dig out from the storm in Des Moines, Iowa
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
A man clears snow off his driveway on Friday, Dec. 25, in Des Moines, Iowa.
updated 12/24/2009 11:20:37 PM ET 2009-12-25T04:20:37

A blustery storm spread snow and ice across the heartland Thursday as Americans rushed to get home for the holidays, grounding flights, stranding drivers on white-knuckle highways and forcing churches to cancel Christmas Eve services.

"I don't think God wants anyone to get killed or break a hip or break a knee or something," said the Rev. Joseph Mirowski of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration in Mason City, Iowa, where up to a foot of snow and sleet was expected.

A foot or two of snow was forecast in parts of the Plains and the Midwest by Christmas Day. Blizzard warnings were issued for Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin, and drivers were encouraged to pack emergency kits before setting out during what is normally one of the busiest travel periods of the year.

The storm was also expected to glaze highways in the East with ice on Christmas.

Slippery roads were blamed for at least 18 deaths this week as the slow-moving storm made its way across the country from the Southwest.

The snowstorm also put the brakes on some last-minute Christmas shopping. At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., some shoppers had entire stores to themselves.

"It doesn't bother me any," said Steve Burns, who was browsing for shirts and other gifts with his teenage daughter.

Dangerous travel
High winds blowing snow across icy roads were a concern elsewhere. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol closed eastbound Interstate 40 in El Reno after numerous accidents, and the state's National Guard was activated to rescue motorists stranded by collisions or spinouts along the H.E. Bailey Turnpike, which runs to the Texas state line.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry activated military personnel to help drivers. North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven placed additional state troopers and the National Guard on standby.

Image: Kids enjoy sledding in St. Paul
Hannah Foslien  /  AP
Alex VanRiper, 10, of Syracuse, N.Y., goes off a jump as Josie Buckley, 13, of Cumberland, Wis., looks on while sledding at Como Park in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday.

The wind gusted to 40 mph in central Kansas, and gusts up to 60 mph were forecast in Oklahoma. 

"The wind is killer, especially when you're empty," trucker Jim Reed said during a stop in Omaha, Neb. "Anything that's boxed, like a refrigerator trailer like I have, becomes like a giant sail in the wind."

In eastern Kansas, Tony Glaum was traveling with his wife and daughter to his parents' home north of Manhattan. He said they were thinking about staying overnight, rather than making their usual Christmas Eve trip back home.

Glaum, 43, of Leavenworth, said he didn't have any delays — until he found himself behind a plow salting the highway. He and his daughter noticed a biting chill in the air.

Still, he said, he is looking forward to a white Christmas: "I think snow would be pretty nice."

Airline headaches
Nearly 100 scheduled flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were canceled Thursday and dozens more were delayed. The Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City shut down one of its three runways and canceled nearly 30 flights. Two-hour-plus delays were reported at Houston's Hobby Airport, and Chicago's O'Hare had hour-long delays and more than 30 cancellations.

The Rev. Roger Claxton canceled Christmas Eve services at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Wabasha, Minn., after the area got at least 8 inches of snow. Claxton feared his congregation's senior citizens would feel compelled to attend.

"I'd rather have people stay home than do their funerals in a couple weeks," he said.

The Rev. Mark Kelm told parishioners to stay home if they didn't feel safe, though he planned to hold services even if he was the only one there at St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church in White Bear Lake, a suburb of St. Paul, Minn.

"If I have to make it on cross-country skis, I'll be here," Kelm said. "The best way I can explain it is, it's just like a pregnant woman — if the baby is coming, the baby is coming. For us, the Christ child is going to be celebrated."

Karen Scholten said her would family would conduct a mini-service at home after the Eagle Grove, Iowa, church she has attended since 1965 canceled its Christmas Eve service for the first time she could recall.

"I'm sure we will read the Christmas story and listen to some Christmas hymns," she said.

Since Tuesday, icy roads have been blamed for accidents that killed at least seven people in Nebraska, four in Kansas, one each in Minnesota and Oklahoma, and one near Albuquerque, N.M.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: White Christmas

  1. Closed captioning of: White Christmas

    >> illinois, thank you, john.

    >>> the weather channel 's mike seidel has been tracking the storm for us in maple grove , minneapolis .

    >> reporter: good evening. this evening the storm is taking aim from des moines to kansas city . storms from north texas here to north dakota and minneapolis -st. paul. take a look at the track of the storm. the problem is it's still deepening it's exploding. it will move slowly into missouri. overnight tonight it lifts through iowa. that means more snow, heavy snow and wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour. that will lead to blinding visibility across the area. this will shut down interstates and make travel next to impossible during the height of the storm. because the storm is limping along such a slow mover, it will be later saturday before we see the wind and snow backing off in these areas. totals will be impressive if not record-setting here in minneapolis . we had six, another 10 to 15. the blizzard in omaha will dump another foot or more of snowfall. in some spots by late saturday we'll see storm totals over 20 inches of snow. a white christmas for sure, and late word tonight in oklahoma city , in the past hour they are now up to 11 inches of snow, just 0.4 inch off their all-time record. back to you.

    >> mike seidel in minnesota for us tonight. thank you, mike.

    >>> another big story on this

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