Winter storm makes mess of holiday travel; roads and airport closed, classes canceled

A shrieking, blizzard-like winter storm made a mess of highways across Kansas and Missouri Sunday, plunged thousands into darkness and shut down Kansas City International Airport, stranding many Thanksgiving weekend travelers.

The storm, stretching as far east as Michigan, hit Kansas City on one of the biggest travel days of the year. The effects will continue to be felt Monday, with many schools and universities in the Kansas City area canceling classes.

Whiteout conditions forced road closures throughout the region for several hours Sunday, on a holiday weekend that was expected to see the most traffic in 12 years, according to the AAA motor club.

Officials urged people to stay off the roads, as work crews found the task of keeping roads clear nearly impossible because of the windblown snow.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer declared a “State of Disaster Emergency” Sunday in a plea for people to stay home and safe.

“This is the strongest winter weather system the Kansas City area has seen in quite some time,” said National Weather Service Meteorologist Chris Gitro.

Sunday saw the first blizzard warning for the area since Jan. 31, 2011, according to the Weather Service.

To reach “blizzard” status, a storm must last three hours or more with sustained or frequent wind gusts of 35 mph or higher, with considerable amounts of falling and blowing snow that reduces visibility frequently to less than a 1/4 mile.

The storm Sunday likely met the criteria for a blizzard, Gitro said, but the Weather Service must analyze storm data to make it official. Snow totals were still being measured Sunday night as the snow tapered off, but as of 6 p.m. KCI reported 5.3 inches.

The storm completely turned around what had been a mild Thanksgiving weekend, with temperatures starting Sunday around 50 degrees before plunging throughout the day. Kansas City saw its first snowfall of more than 3 inches since February 2014.

Winds gusting up to 55 mph knocked down power lines across the area and reduced visibility to near-zero for many travelers.

Interstate 29 was closed from near St. Joseph north to Iowa, and Interstate 70 was shut down from Topeka west across most of Kansas.

People who were waiting for family to get home through Sunday’s storm, like Amy Scott of Kearney, Mo., anxiously awaited news from the highways.

A group of Scott’s family members, setting out from near St. Joseph, struggled to get to Salina for the night on their way home to Denver Sunday, Scott said.

On I-70 they saw cars that had slid off the road, crashes and an ambulance tipped over on its side, Scott said. The family was stuck in traffic, worried about having enough gas.

“I’m just saying prayers for them and others who have to be out on the roads,” Scott said. “I wish they didn’t have to, but I understood why they did have to.”

Interstate 35 also experienced some closures during the afternoon, from U.S. 75 to Emporia, and then on the northbound lanes near Liberty.

For a while, all east-west roads were closed in Atchison County, according to Atchison County Emergency Management.

At other times, highways were temporarily closed by crashes. Numerous slide-off crashes were reported throughout the area.

RideKC reported throughout the day that the Kansas City bus service was running late, and then announced late in the afternoon that all services were suspended at 6 p.m. because of dangerous conditions.

During the storm, Kansas City Power and Light reported about 35,000 customers lost power. About 15,000 were still without power Sunday night. The company said crews would work through the night, but some harder-hit areas might be without power into Monday afternoon.

KCI battled the weather throughout the day, with dozens of flights canceled. The airport said arriving and departing flights stopped at 2:30 p.m. The airport was reopened by 6:45 p.m.

The closure continued for several hours, as crews worked to clear runways and hoped for improved visibility.

Many area school districts announced Sunday afternoon that classes would be canceled Monday. By late in the afternoon, most districts were calling for a snow day.

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