Much of Wisconsin is under a winter advisory or storm warning days before Christmas during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.
"Don't underestimate this storm," Tim Carnahan, of the Wisconsin State Patrol, said in a press briefing. "The conditions are such and the temperatures are such that things like salt are going to be, in many cases, ineffective. It's just too cold, and the wind would blow the salt off the roadway anyway. So my best advice is seriously reconsider whether or not you're going to travel."
The far western part of the state from La Crosse through Eau Claire is under a winter storm warning, while Milwaukee, Sheboygan and Appleton are under winter weather advisories through Thursday evening, meteorologists said. In northeastern Wisconsin, temperatures are expected to drop below zero on Thursday and fall to single digits in the northwest. The weather service anticipates temperatures will improve slightly on Friday, with low of about minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the east and minus 10 to minus 6 degrees in the west part of the state.
"It's going to be like a one-two punch," said Kevin Lynott, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Milwaukee. Central and southern Wisconsin are expected to see a few inches of snow on Thursday, he said, but more problematic is the wind, which could reach 30 to 45 miles per hour by the afternoon.
"So any newly fresh snow is going to blow all over the place, reduce visibilities and make it hard to do anything outside Thursday evening," Lynott said.
In Green Bay, snow is expected to arrive Wednesday evening and continue overnight into Thursday morning before it tapers off in the evening, according to meteorologist Timm Uhlmann.
"If you must travel, make sure that you're prepared," he said. Uhlmann advised bringing a winter kit and following the main roads that get plowed more often.
Wisconsin utility companies are also preparing for the storm.
Last week, Xcel Energy, which serves about 225,000 customers in northern Wisconsin, called in crew from eight different states to help with power outages. Spokesperson Chris Ouellette said 60,000 customers lost power as heavy, wet snow, trees and branches hit power lines.
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"We had trucks that were sliding into ditches that were getting stuck, we had to have plows working ahead of us to get into these areas," Ouellette said.
And while this week's snow "allows a little bit better mobility" for repairs, she said, "what concerns us is the potential for high winds, and the fact that many of those trees and power lines are still coated in that snow from last week."
Ouellette said that because the cold temperatures require the company to rotate crews more frequently, that could slow down restoration efforts. "So customers should be prepared that you could possibly lose power for several hours, if not a day or two," she said.
Matt Cullen, a spokesperson for Wisconsin Public Service, said the wind will be challenging, as trees, tree limbs and branches could damage power lines.
He suggests people check and clear their natural gas meters for any buildup of ice and snow, which he said could cause a natural gas leak. The company, which serves customers in northeastern and north central Wisconsin, is taking inventory of its equipment and power lines.
"We are closely monitoring weather forecasts, as well as the potential for a strong winter storm to move through northeast and north central Wisconsin during the next few days," he said. "And we are taking steps to prepare if our crews would need to respond so that they can do so as safely and as quickly as possible."
Some universities, including UW-Superior, UW-Green Bay and UW-La Crosse have already moved final exams to an online format to help students avoid travel during the storm. On Wednesday, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Milwaukee canceled their in-person finals due to the winter storm.
Wisconsinites should expect a cold Christmas weekend, meteorologists said
Lynott, the meteorologist with the Milwaukee station, said this will be more of a cold than snowy Christmas weekend.
"But when you add up all the wind in the blowing snow, the most difficult day for trying to venture outside for anything, anything at all, will likely be Friday morning," he said, adding that the wind will blow out of the northwest all day.
Lynott said temperatures are expected to plunge below zero at night this weekend and into Christmas morning. He said, "the wind will be the worst" on Friday, which will also see "blowing snow."
"The wind should subside some Saturday, although we're still expecting breezy to windy conditions across central and southern Wisconsin on Saturday," he said, adding that the temperatures — not so much the snow — will be the highlight this Christmas weekend.