116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Bitter and cold: Winter storm in Iowa threatens holiday travel
Snowfall amounts uncertain, but forecasters expect up to 10 inches
Up to 10 inches of snow and wind gusts as high as 50 mph later this week in Eastern Iowa are almost certain to affect holiday travel as forecasters warn that now is the time to prepare for bitter cold and impassable roadways.
All of Iowa was put under a winter storm watch Monday afternoon, although estimates of snowfall between Wednesday and Friday remained uncertain — but with strong winds, forecasters nonetheless were predicting blizzard conditions are possible.
“Travel could be very difficult. Widespread blowing snow could significantly reduce visibility. The hazardous conditions could impact the morning and evening commutes. Strong winds could cause tree damage and potential power outages. The cold wind chills as low as 30 below zero could cause frostbite on exposed skin in as little as 30 minutes,” the National Weather Service said.
Snowfall was expected to range between 5 and 10 inches between late Wednesday and Friday night. “This will be a long duration event, so plan appropriately prior to the start. Plan travel around peak hours of the storm, either before or after impacts,” the weather service advised.
Iowa Department of Transportation Winter Operations Administrator Craig Bargfrede said the department is doing maintenance on vehicles and equipment in preparation for the winter storm. The Iowa DOT is responsible for removing snow from 25,000 lane miles across Iowa, including interstates. Counties and many cities have crews, too.
The state department has 1,000 full-time crew members as well as about 300 of its 633 seasonal slots filled so far, spread across its 101 garages around the state. The department also has about 920 snow plows.
“We will be out there as long as it takes to get the roads back to normal winter driving conditions,” Bargfrede said, “regardless if it's Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. One thing that will hamper us a bit is the temperatures and winds we are seeing, we won't be able to do as much pretreatment as we would typically like to do before a storm like this. There will be some but it's not going to be as widespread.”
Bargfrede said dealing with blowing snow and drifting for a couple days after snowfall stops can be frustrating, and he warned holiday travelers to exercise extra caution if they need to be on the road.
“With this being a holiday week with a lot of travelers, I would stress to folks that they need to be winter aware. We could see some very dangerous conditions on Thursday and Friday with the cold temperatures,” Bargfrede said. “Visibility will become an issue obviously. There are a lot of factors in this storm that one needs to pay attention to.”
According to the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the leading cause of death during winter storms is car crashes.
Bargfrede said it’s hard to estimate a cost of the response, but a winter storm over the holiday weekend will be more expensive.
“It will probably be a bit more expensive from a labor standpoint because of the length of the storm and with holidays. Overtime will probably run a bit higher than we would normally see,” he said. “Fuel is still high now and materials are still higher. It will probably be higher than what we typically see.”
In Linn County, the secondary roads department is responsible for cleaning up about 1,147 miles of county roads.
“The rate of snowfall does not have much bearing on how quickly we clear a route,” said Jerad Kelley, the Linn County Secondary Road Department operations superintendent. “The initial passes are not generally affected much by snow depth … the trucks can push a lot of snow without it affecting how quickly they can get through their route.”
Pam Hinman, The Eastern Iowa Airport director of marketing and communications, said that Christmas usually is a steady time for the airport but isn’t busier than Thanksgiving or spring break.
“Flights are about 80 percent full right now, so we are expecting a couple thousand people a day throughout this week,” Hinman said. “So there aren’t as many seats available, but folks will need to check with their airline to make other plans if needed.”
Hinman said the airlines handle their own operations and make decisions on cancellations and delays. She said she encourages people to download airline apps and monitor the latest flight status.
Those choices on cancellations or delays mostly depend on visibility. If the visibility is less than half a mile, planes stay grounded — which is possible later this week with strong winds and blowing snow.
“People should start looking now at their airline website because an airline could want to preemptively cancel and say, ‘Hey, you might want to switch your flight.’” Hinman said. “It’s possible, but hey, it’s Iowa in the winter.”
Preparing for winter storms
Each year, hundreds of Americans are injured or killed due to cold exposure, winter vehicle accidents and fires caused by improper use of heaters, according to the Red Cross.
The organization recommends keeping warm clothes and blankets handy. And it recommends getting enough food and medication needed during the storm stocked ahead of time to avoid extra travel outside.
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