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Winter storm upends holiday travel for Wisconsinites, prompts ‘energy emergency declaration’

Gov. Tony Evers declared energy emergency as winter storm brings bitterly cold temperatures, gusty winds across the state

Three vehicles drive on a snow covered road during snowy conditions. The two cars in the distance can hardly be seen.
Drivers travel slowly on snowy roads Thursday, Dec. 22, in Milton, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A winter storm is plowing through Wisconsin, upending travel plans for people across the state before the holiday weekend.

Gov. Tony Evers declared an energy emergency Thursday in case freezing temperatures and snow interfere with fuel delivery and weather-related power outages leave people without heat.

“The health, welfare, and safety of our neighbors depend on access to fuel for home heating,” Evers said in a statement. “Getting liquid fuel products moving now to those who need it and making it as easy as possible for utility crews to restore power, if needed, will help our folks stay safe.”

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Temperatures Thursday are expected to drop to below negative 10 degrees in the western region, while the east will see temperatures hover around zero. Wind gusts could reach 50 mph on Friday.

Marcia Cronce, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service-Milwaukee, said a “strong, low pressure system” is bringing light to moderate snow, but strong winds could “blow around and reduce visibilities on roads, cause some drifting and hazardous travel across all of Wisconsin.”

A pedestrian in a black coat and hood approaches the middle of a divided highway in a snow storm.
A pedestrian crosses the road in snowy conditions Thursday, Dec. 22, in Janesville, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Dane County Regional Airport, among other airports in the state, has already seen a handful of delays, according to Michael Riechers, director of marketing and communications. He said most of the delays are minimal, ranging from 15 to 45 minutes.

“This snowfall wasn’t as bad as we were kind of prepared to see. So that was kind of reassuring,” he said, adding that wind and blowing snow would “be like a brand new snow event for us.”

“Anytime there’s a delay in this kind of post-pandemic airline industry, the ripple effect can be significant,” Riechers said.

The airport sees between 2,500 to 2,800 passengers per day, but the delays are coming at peak travel time. On Thursday, the airport saw about 3,600 passengers.

“There’s a national pilot shortage right now, so there is no slack in the system. There’s no excess of pilots or airplanes,” Riechers said. “So when there is one delay, it can be made up. But when there’s consecutive delays, that can kind of snowball throughout the day of travel.”

Riechers said their main concern is making sure the runway surface and terminal are safe and operable.

“We need to keep the lights on, we need to keep the heat on. Those are all critical infrastructure components, particularly during a cold spell like we’re going to have in the next couple of days,” he said.

Still, it’s up to airlines to decide whether to fly or not. Riechers encouraged passengers to check their flight status.

Jesse Funk, the public information officer at Appleton International Airport, said about 50 percent of flights got delayed on Thursday.

“As the day wears on, we do anticipate some more cancelations for tomorrow,” Funk said. He added the airport is keeping a close eye on the storm, taking it hour by hour. Some airlines have already offered fee waivers.

“We want to be optimistic. We want to say that we’ll continue to push through this,” Funk said. “All of the northern airports, including Appleton, are very used to snow. That said, 50 mile an hour wind gusts can be a problem for airplanes. We’ll wait and see what the weather brings. We don’t want to panic or jump to any conclusions.”

Since most airplanes are made out of aluminum, which would corrode with salt, he said the crew is “constantly plowing.” Funk said the wind will be challenging because airplanes take off and land into the wind.

Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, the largest in the state, has seen “minimal delays,” according to marketing and public relations director Stephanie Staudinger. Some 7,500 people are projected to depart from the city Thursday.

She said the maintenance and snow removal crews have “kind of got it down to a science when the weather falls during this time of holiday travel.”

“That blowing snow is what they’re going to focus on clearing,” she said, adding planes can usually operate under some cold conditions.

A woman in a coat and boots uses a shovel to clear snow from a downtown sidewalk.
Lauta Ashiku shovels the sidewalk in front of her parents’ restaurant, Natalie’s Parkview Cafe, on Thursday, Dec. 22, in Milton, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Northern Wisconsin is expected to get up to 6 inches of snow, Milwaukee meteorologist Cronce said, and winds will reach 30 mph today in the southwestern area of the state. Tonight, the whole state will see between 30 and 45 mph winds.

She said the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is reporting slippery stretches on many roads across the state.

“If you are setting out to travel, have a winter weather safety kit in your vehicle and check the road conditions. Check the weather forecast before you leave. And then allow extra time for travel. Slow down. Don’t follow people too closely,” Cronce said.

Cronce said wind gusts will slow to 25 to 30 mph on Saturday — not nearly as windy as Friday, but still brisk.