The Upper Midwest is about to get slammed by a winter storm, just in time to interrupt holiday travel, last-minute shopping and Christmas Eve church plans.
Forecasts show the storm will move into Minnesota on Wednesday afternoon and dump a foot of snow or more in parts of the state over a four-day period.
"It's definitely taking aim," MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner said in his blog post Tuesday morning.
Huttner said snow totals could reach 18 inches by Saturday in some areas.
"The 'sweet spot' for heaviest snow appears to be from the west metro to Willmar, to Mankato south to the Iowa border near Worthington. These are the areas most likely to see snowfall totals of one foot or more," he predicted.
The storm, which could also bring freezing rain and sleet, was expected to make road and air travel difficult right as thousands of people planned to make the trip to see friends and family.
At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, snow removal crews were ready to stay overnight in bunks at the airport if necessary to keep runways clear, airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said.
"The airlines as well as the airport are obviously watching the weather very closely," Hogan said. "It's going to be a rough week for travel and it's unfortunate since it's such an important week for people to be able to get home for the holidays."
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines on Tuesday announced they would allow passengers flying from, to or through several Midwestern states -- including Minnesota -- to change their travel schedules without a penalty. The policy was effective in 10 states Tuesday through Sunday on Delta and in nine states Wednesday through Friday on United.
Delta officials said in an advisory that they will also reduce flight schedules to and from airports expected to be hit by the storm so that delays are minimized. Details about options for travelers were posted on both airlines' Web sites.
Other airlines are likely to issue similar policies. It's common during big storms for airlines to cancel some flights ahead of time to consolidate passengers onto fewer flights. People with canceled flights are often able to get a refund.
Twin Cities travel expert Terry Trippler said pre-canceling flights allows an airline to keep operations as normal as possible. In the Northeast storm that happened this week, Delta pre-canceled many flights, Trippler said.
"They wanted to keep equipment out of cities where they could get stranded, and I think it worked very well for them," he told MPR's Morning Edition.
But passengers traveling during the holidays won't benefit from a new rule limiting the amount of time an airline can keep passengers waiting on a plane -- it doesn't go into effect for another four months.
Those who don't plan to travel long distances on Christmas Eve won't be able to ignore the weather either. Even driving to church services could be hazardous, although it's not likely many churches will cancel their offerings.
Grant Abbott, executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, said that while church leaders want members of the congregation to use their best judgment about travel, it'd be difficult to reach everyone to announce a cancellation.
"With the holidays you get a lot of people who come only once or twice or three times a year. How are you going to reach them?" Abbott said. "Even if only 20 people show up, the pastor or the priest has to be there."
(MPR's Cathy Wurzer contributed to this report.)