Emergency preparations were in place for a powerful winter storm bringing blizzard conditions to the Omaha metro area Monday night and Tuesday.
The big question remaining was how many people would try to make the Tuesday morning commute.
The storm was expected to bring 8 to 12 inches of snow to the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area by Tuesday night, accompanied by sustained winds of 15 mph to 25 mph and gusts of 35 mph or greater. Prolonged blowing and drifting of snow is likely, according to the National Weather Service.
Heavier snow, 12 to 14 inches, was expected to fall northwest of the metro area, affecting Fremont, Norfolk and Columbus. Lighter amounts were forecast for areas to the south, including southeastern Nebraska and southwestern Iowa.
About 10:30 p.m. Monday, light rain — and a few snowflakes — started to fall in the metro area. At the time, the snow was mostly falling in Blair, Wahoo and Fremont.
Rain and snow were expected to become all snow after 3 a.m. Tuesday, with the snow possibly heavy at times. Conditions will be breezy, with an east-northeast wind gusting as high as 35 mph.
Early Tuesday, the Nebraska Department of Roads reported that roadways in the western two-thirds of the state were completely covered and roads in parts of northeast and southeast Nebraska were partially covered. The Iowa Department of Transportation reported that roadways in a small part of southwest part of the state were partially covered.
Moderate to heavy snow was reported in southwestern Nebraska and the Sand Hills early Tuesday. Snow was falling at the rate of an inch as hour between North Platte and Ogallala.
Snowfall reports in inches west of the Omaha area early Tuesday: North Platte, 7.3; Paxton, 9.3; Broken Bow, 3.0; north of Sidney, 12.0; Sidney, 9.0; Alliance, 6.0, Scottsbluff, 6.0; Miller, 3.4; Hastings, 1.4: Grand Island, 1.3; Loomis, 4.0; Orleans, 3.0; Franklin, 4.0; Lexington, 1.5; Hendley, 3.5; Cambridge, 7.0.
School districts in Omaha canceled Tuesday classes, and events around town were being postponed or rescheduled. Offutt Air Force Base announced that it would close except for mission-essential personnel.
Numerous local governments in Douglas and Sarpy Counties issued snow emergencies, which put parking restrictions in place. The City of Omaha’s snow emergency parking restrictions went into effect at midnight east of 72nd Street.
Late Monday, airlines at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield had canceled 36 flights — arrivals and departures.
Eppley officials said most of the cancellations were the last arrivals of Monday night and the first departures for Tuesday. Some of the cancellations were due to winter in the Denver area.
Monday: 12 arrivals canceled, four departures canceled.
Tuesday: Three arrivals canceled, 17 departures canceled.
Officials urged travelers to contact their airlines or check their airlines’ website before arriving at Eppley on Tuesday.
With dangerous travel conditions forecast across nearly all of Nebraska and Iowa, roads officials have issued a plea: If you don’t have to drive Tuesday, don’t.
Mayor Jean Stothert and city officials held a press conference outlining the city's snow-removal plan.
The Lincoln and Omaha areas were under a winter storm warning, one step shy of the blizzard warning in effect for south-central and northeast Nebraska.
People shouldn’t read too much into that distinction, said Corey Mead, meteorologist with the weather service.
“We don’t want people to let their guard down,” Mead said, explaining the difference is a technical one.
To issue a blizzard warning, he said, forecasters must have a high level of confidence that blowing snow from winds in excess of 35 mph will reduce visibility below a quarter-mile for at least three hours.
“It’s still going to be pretty rough out there Tuesday,” he said. “There will be blizzard-like conditions.”
The reason Omaha and Lincoln may fall short of blizzard conditions has to do with the path taken by the eye of the storm. Weather models indicate the eye will be closer to Omaha than originally thought. If that holds true, then winds probably won’t be strong enough to sustain prolonged blizzard conditions.
Mead cautioned, however, that there remained a possibility Omaha and Lincoln could find themselves in the midst of a full-fledged blizzard Tuesday.
Another wrinkle to forecasting conditions in Omaha has to do with temperatures, he said. The forecast indicates temperatures right around freezing throughout the storm. This would lessen snowfall totals because more of the precipitation would fall as rain.
Regardless, Omaha is likely to see a wet, heavy snow.
During the Tuesday morning commute, Lincoln and Omaha could have several inches of snow on the ground with strong winds blowing.
Dale Butler, manager of maintenance and operations for the Omaha office of the Nebraska Department of Roads, said crews will focus on keeping highways passable. That means highways will be slick because workers won’t apply salt until the storm abates.
“It won’t do any good because of the intensity of the snow,” he said. “All we’ll be able to do is try to keep the roads passable.”
One worry is that people will try to drive Tuesday, get stuck and impede road clearing, said Butler and Paul Johnson, director of Douglas County Emergency Management.
“We don’t mandatorily close anything,” Johnson said. “That’s up to people and employers to use their best judgment. ... This is not going to be a storm where a one-time clearing takes care of the roads. With blowing snow, it’s going to be a challenge.”
The Nebraska Legislature has canceled Tuesday sessions, and the Douglas County Board canceled its meeting. Deffenbaugh Industries will not collect trash or recyclables. Meteorologists scheduled to work Tuesday at the weather service office in Valley are planning to bunk there tonight.
A number of major employers were mulling their options. At midday Monday, ConAgra Foods officials had not told employees to stay home Tuesday.
“We’ll do whatever is best for the safety of our employees,” spokesman Chris Kircher said.
The company will take the lead from city officials if streets become impassable, Kircher said. “If it gets to the point where they’re saying you shouldn’t be out, we’ll have to make a decision.”
On Sunday, the City of Omaha released a statement asking that employers consider curtailed operations Tuesday.
Mayor Jean Stothert said in the statement: “I encourage businesses and school districts to consider the safety of their students and employees on Tuesday. If you can operate with essential personnel only and stagger times for employees to report in the morning and leave in the evening, it will help reduce traffic so we can keep the streets as clear and safe as possible.”
World-Herald staff writers Kevin Cole, Brooke Criswell, Steve Jordon and Russell Hubbard contributed to this report.