Blizzards rolled into parts of Wyoming and South Dakota on Friday, bringing the snow-savvy states to an unseasonably early winter standstill and causing the central U.S. and Southeast to tense for the storm's onslaught as it combines with other fronts.
Officials were warning drivers to stay off the roads in the Black Hills and in eastern Wyoming, where reports of 5 to 10 inches of snow were common. Forecasters urged travelers to carry survival kits and to stay in their vehicles if they get stranded.
"I've lived in Wyoming my whole life and I've never seen it like this this early," Patricia Whitman, shift manager at the Flying J truck stop in Gillette, said in a telephone interview. "Usually the first snow is, like, Halloween."
She said her truck stop's parking lot was full of travelers waiting out the storm.
"I know several of the businesses nearby are completely closed because they can't even get workers into work — it's pretty nasty," she said.
Heavy snow and winds gusts approaching 50 mph created blizzard conditions in the eastern-central part the state, including Torrington, Lusk, Wheatland and Douglas.
Reports of 5 to 10 inches of snow and 3-foot drifts were common, with higher amounts in the mountains. Conditions improved from west to east as the storm moved out of the state. Most weather warnings expired Friday night.
Hundreds of miles highways, including long stretches of interstates 25 and 90, were closed. A 120-mile stretch of I-25 between Casper and Sheridan was shut down, as well as about 180 miles of I-90 from Sheridan to the South Dakota state line.
The snow also snapped tree limbs that knocked out power lines in parts of the state, causing thousands of people to lose power.
Powder River Energy Corp., which has many rural electric customers in northeast Wyoming, estimated about 3,000 customers without power Friday afternoon.
Repair crews had to be recalled in some areas because of impassable roads and poor weather conditions, according to Powder River spokeswoman Kristin Kelly.
"They've also got really deep snow," Kelly said. "To get into these power lines in some of these areas, in the past we've had to bring in snowmobiles, so they might be working on bringing some snow equipment in. But right now to get the bucket trucks in it's very difficult."
Snowfall totals reported Friday afternoon by the National Weather Service included 14 inches at Dubois, about a foot at Lander and Wamsutter, up to 8 inches in Riverton and Lusk, 7 inches in Thermopolis, 6 inches at Cody and Laramie, and around 2 feet in some mountain areas, including Casper Mountain.
It was a similar scene at the typically bustling Pilot Travel Center in western South Dakota near Rapid City, about 40 miles southwest of Deadwood. It was like a ghost town Friday morning, which store general manager John Barton attributed to drivers likely heeding forecasters' warnings to stay off the roads.
"Yesterday we were really busy," Barton said. "I think a lot of people got ahead of it."
The storm dumped 33 inches of snow in a part of South Dakota's scenic Black Hills near Lead, "and it's still coming down," National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Helgeson said Friday afternoon.
Wind gusts reached as high as 68 miles per hour just outside the weather service office in downtown Rapid City, where 8 inches of snow had accumulated, Helgeson said.
In northwest Nebraska, three people were killed in an accident on snow-slicked U.S. 20 Friday morning, authorities said. The storm system also generated a tornado in Nebraska, blanketed Colorado's northern mountains with snow and was threatening to push strong thunderstorms as far east as Wisconsin.
Although early October snowfalls aren't unusual for the region, a storm of such magnitude happens only once every decade or two on the Plains, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Trimarchi said.
"I couldn't say when the last time we've had one like this. It's been quite a while," Trimarchi said.
The cold front is moving slowly east and expanding south and will meet up with the remnants of Tropical Storm Karen on Saturday or Sunday, after that storm makes landfall along the Gulf Coast.
Though much of the Midwest and Southeast may get soaked, it won't be as devastating as past combination storms, such as Superstorm Sandy, said William Bunting, operations chief at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. Sandy resulted from the merging of cold fronts and a tropical storm.
The Midwest, especially Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, are at most risk for large thunderstorms, tornadoes and hail, "perhaps baseball-sized hail," Bunting said.
Large hail and powerful winds were forecast for northwest Oklahoma later Friday, while heavy rain settled in parts of Iowa and was expected to swoop northeast across the region into Wisconsin.
In Nebraska, a tornado that touched down Thursday night damaged homes and businesses in several communities, knocked out power and toppled trees. But no injuries have been reported.
Snow also was still falling across northern Colorado on Friday, though no major problems were being reported.