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.
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.
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."
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.