DES MOINES — The first widespread snowstorm of the season blasted the Midwest on Thursday with whiteout conditions that stranded holiday travelers and sent drivers sliding over slick roads — including a fatal, 25-vehicle pileup in Iowa.
The storm, which dumped a foot of snow in parts of Iowa and Wisconsin, was part of a system that began in the Rockies earlier in the week before trekking into the Midwest.
The storm brought mostly rain to the Toledo area, but forecasters expected snow to wrap in behind its cold front as it passed through the lower Great Lakes.
Thursday evening, the National Weather Service expected rain to change to snow in Toledo after 1 a.m., with accumulation of up to an inch before sunrise and another 1 to 3 inches possible during the day.
FirstEnergy announced Thursday it had put line crews on standby to respond to power failures possible because of forecasts for 50-mph winds.
Any accumulating snow at Toledo Express Airport would be the first to stick there since March 5, ending a record snowless streak.
The storm prompted airlines to cancel about 1,000 flights ahead of the Christmas holiday — relatively few compared to past big storms, though the number was climbing.
On the southern edge of the system, tornadoes destroyed several homes in Arkansas.
In Iowa, drivers were blinded by blowing snow and didn’t see vehicles that had slowed or stopped on I-35 about 60 miles north of Des Moines, state police said.
A chain reaction of crashes involving semitrailers and passenger cars closed a section of the highway. Officials said two people were killed and seven injured.
“It’s time to listen to warnings and get off the road,” Iowa State Patrol Col. David Garrison said.
Along with Thursday’s fatal accident in Iowa, the storm was blamed for traffic deaths in Nebraska, Kansas, and Wisconsin. In southeastern Utah, a woman who tried to walk for help after her car became stuck in snow died Tuesday night.
“It’s going to be very windy with considerable blowing and drifting of snow,” said Bruce Terry, a senior National Weather Service forecaster at the HydroMeteorological Prediction Center in College Park, Md.
He called the pre-Christmas storm “a major winter snowstorm” for the Midwest and western Great Lakes.
The storm made travel difficult from Kansas to Wisconsin, forcing road closures, including a 120-mile stretch of I-35 from Ames, Iowa, through Albert Lea, Minn.
Sections of I-80 in Nebraska and I-29 in Missouri that had been closed were reopened Thursday afternoon.
Iowa and Wisconsin activated National Guard troops to help rescue stranded drivers.
Those who planned to fly didn’t fare much better. In Chicago, commuters began Thursday with heavy fog and cold, driving rain, and forecasters said snow would hit by midafternoon.
Airlines delayed and canceled hundreds of flights out of Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway international airports.
Southwest Airlines canceled all its flights at its Midway hub that were scheduled for after 4:30 p.m., and American Airlines shut down its O’Hare operations after 8 p.m.
Airlines were waiving fees for customers affected by the storm who wanted to change their flights. They were monitoring the storm throughout the night to determine if more cancellations would be necessary today.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people lost power in Arkansas, Iowa, and Nebraska as heavy snow and strong winds pulled down lines.
Smaller outages were reported in Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Louisiana.
The storm’s arrival in the Midwest on Thursday — the heaviest shipping day of the year — could mean that some packages might not make it under the tree in time for Christmas.
So far no major disruptions have been reported.
Wal-Mart, the No. 2 online retailer behind Amazon.com, said no orders have been delayed. By the time the storm hits the Northeast today, it should be a wintry mix of rain and snow — not enough to delay deliveries.
Still, the storm’s timing couldn’t have been worse for the world’s largest package delivery company, UPS.
Thursday was to be the Atlanta-based company’s busiest day of the year. Before the storm ended service in some areas, it expected to move 28 million packages on Thursday, nearly double an average day.