Winter storm upends travel plans as it brings extreme cold to St. Louis region
Updated at 5:08 p.m. with the latest conditions
A massive winter storm moved through the St. Louis region beginning Thursday morning.
The most hazardous conditions, including extreme cold and blizzard-causing wind, were behind the initial front, said Kevin Deitsch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in St. Louis.
“We are seeing temperature drops of 20 even 30 degrees in just over a few hours,” he said. “It just shows the power of this front and the arctic air moving in behind the front.”
As of 400 pm, bitterly cold air continues to spread eastward and intensify across the area in the wake of the earlier Arctic front passage. Dangerous wind chills of 15 to 25 below zero have spread into east-central MO and western IL. #stlwx #mowx #ilwx pic.twitter.com/fsUy8eZVZl— NWS St. Louis (@NWSStLouis) December 22, 2022
Travelers at St. Louis Lambert International Airport said they were frustrated because of changing flight times, delays and cancellations on Thursday morning.
Christa Austin drove to St. Louis from Springfield, Illinois, late on Wednesday in hopes of hopping on a flight to Orlando. Her thought was if she was in St. Louis early, she could avoid the change in weather.
This year marked a new tradition for Austin, her four siblings and more than 50 relatives — celebrating Christmas somewhere warmer than Missouri.
“We’re always home for Christmas,” the 51-year-old said. “So this is our first time being away from home.”
Austin’s flight is rescheduled to take off around 3 p.m., but that coincides with when the heaviest snowfall is slated to hit the region.
“Frustrated. Sad. Disappointed,” she said of the situation, adding she didn’t know what she would do if her flight was canceled. “[We’re] just trying to figure out if driving is an option? We don't know. So we're looking.”
Valerie Hearn, a 61-year-old traveler from Hannibal, faced a similar dilemma. She drove to St. Louis on Thursday morning to catch a flight to Georgia in order to visit her two daughters and five grandchildren.
Hearn said she was told she didn’t get to check-in soon enough to board but was hopeful to be able to make it on another flight. She recognizes it isn’t a guarantee.
“What am I going to do? If I stay and wait on the 12:59 plane and the [weather] hits, will an airplane be able to take off and still take me to Georgia?” she questioned. “So, I’m just stuck right now.”
Derek Robertson shared similar sentiments. The 41-year-old from Chesterfield is supposed to travel to New York and New Jersey with his husband and two beagles, Scout and Ranger. “We got here this morning and then were moved to a later flight around 1 p.m.,” Robertson said, adding he hopes they get to their family before Christmas.
According to Flightaware, 53 flights originating from and 62 flights to Lambert were canceled on Thursday.
Road crews began working around the St. Louis region early to prepare roads ahead of heavier snow and winds, said Bob Becker, a district engineer for MoDOT.
“We’ll be treating as it comes in, trying to have that bond breaker down to keep that from freezing hard on the roadways,” he said. “Once something gets stuck down on the road, if we can’t get it off, it’ll be there a while.”
Becker expects the worst of the weather will linger for the typical evening rush hour.
“Hopefully it’s going to be a light rush hour, but that’s still going to be in the middle of this event,” he said.
Most major roads around the St. Louis region remained clear, according to MoDOT’s traveler information map. A portion of eastbound Interstate 44 in Laclede County near Fort Leonard Wood remains closed because of a multivehicle crash.
This storm brought a mix of frigid air, gusts and snow that can cause blizzard conditions in some areas, Deitsch said.
The north winds may also cause issues for crews trying to clear major east-west roadways because it can push snow back onto portions that have already been cleared, he said.
It’s one of the things MoDOT crews are paying close attention to, Becker said.
The air temperatures and wind are what make this storm particularly dangerous, with wind chills approaching record lows near 30 below zero Thursday night and Friday morning, Deitsch said.
Those temperatures can cause frostbite in about 15 to 30 minutes, Deitsch explained.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Oh, we’re going to go sledding and enjoy this snow,’” Deitsch said. “This is not the kind of situation that you want to do that in just because you can get frostbite in such a short amount of time.”
The wind chill is also dangerous for drivers who may become stranded, said Dallas Thompson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
“If you find yourself stranded or you’ve slid off into a ditch, stay inside your car; it’s a good windbreak,” he said.
Precipitation from Thursday’s storm lagged behind the drop in temperature, which reduced the risk of flash freezing, said Joseph Monroe, operations engineer for Illinois Department of Transportation District 8, which includes portions of the Metro East.
“We never really got a period of wet snow,” he said. “It’s a very dry powdery snow, which will be much more prone to blowing and drifting as the winds continue to crank up overnight.”
The powdery snow comes with trade-offs though, mainly that light winds can blow it back onto cleared roads, Monroe said. This means IDOT must spend more time getting roads clear on Friday and into the weekend, he added.
The subzero temperatures also don’t help, especially as pavement temperatures drop along with air temperatures, Monroe said.
“Once [pavement] gets below 10 [degrees], salt’s effectiveness essentially goes away.” he said. “It’ll work in spurts, but what it melts out dilutes it back pretty quickly."
Monroe explained that patchy sun forecast for Friday will help his crews get remaining roads clear.
It appears many travelers stayed in Thursday, said Nick Chabarria, a spokesperson for AAA Missouri. The travel association hasn’t experienced an increase for calls for roadside assistance on Thursday, he added.
“The real concern and where we think the majority of calls are going to come are going to be tomorrow and through the weekend,” Chabarria said. “As folks who may have hunkered down, they go to start their vehicles, and their vehicle won’t start.”
The extreme cold will drain the batteries in some cars, especially those parked outside, he said.
Thursday’s storm isn’t likely to dampen the nearly 7 million people between Missouri and Illinois AAA projects will hit the road for the holiday period between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, Chabarria said. It may just alter when people decide to travel, he added.
“Typically Friday and Saturday are the busiest travel times in the afternoon and the evening hours,” Chabarria said. “Because of the weather today, we may see busy, peak congestion times really running throughout both of those days.”
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.
Brian Munoz is a staff photojournalist and multimedia reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.