By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Holiday travel could be a challenge from Michigan to the central Appalachian mountains as a blast of winter weather including heavy snow and high winds hits the region through Saturday, meteorologists said on Friday.
"Right now the Great Lakes are getting hit, from Lake Michigan to the east," said Pat Slattery, spokesman for the National Weather Service. "The big story for most people is it's going to mess travel up completely."
Pittsburg is expected to take the biggest blow of any major metropolitan area, with 10-18 inches expected to fall by Saturday evening. Western New York, including Buffalo, is looking at up to 14 inches, Slattery said.
The winter blast is part of the same system that buried parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin Thursday in more than a foot of snow in some places, shutting down roads and schools.
More than 320,000 homes and businesses were without power in the eastern half of the United States Friday, following a series of snow and rain storms, power companies said. The hardest hit states include Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
The storm system was also fueling strong winds in the east and southeast, with gusts of between 50 and 60 miles per hour. The winds were strong enough to knock down tree limbs, weaken trees and send unsecured objects into the air, noted Accuweather.com senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.
"It is possible the winds could disturb some repair work being done in the wake of Sandy," wrote Sosnowski in an article on the website, referring to the hurricane that devastated the east coast in late October.
The winds will likely result in flight delays in the region from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, New York City and Boston into the weekend. On the west coast, heavy rains are causing delays at San Francisco International Airport, according to Accuweather.com.
The sun is shining in Iowa Friday, and the state's Department of Transportation has "every person and every piece of equipment we have out on the roads," according to state maintenance engineer Bob Younie.
"Salt and the sun is going to be our friend today," Younie said. "I'd like think we're going to get the roads back to pretty drivable conditions."
The storm Thursday contributed to a 25-car accident near Clarion, Iowa that left three people dead.
The winter storm, named Draco by the Weather Channel, began Tuesday in the Rocky Mountains, marking a sharp change from the mild December experienced by most of the nation. High winds kicked up a dust storm in western Texas on Wednesday leading to one death in a traffic accident near Lubbock.
Chicago got just 0.2 of an inch of snow through midnight, ending a record streak of 290 days without measurable snow, according to Accuweather.com.
Other snowfalls set records Thursday, including Madison, Wisconsin with 13.3 inches, beating a previous record of 4.6 inches for the day set in 2000. Even heavier snow fell in Middleton, south of Madison, which got 19.5 inches, Slattery said.
Also setting a record was Des Moines, Iowa, with 12.4 inches, breaking a record of 4.5 inches set in 1925, according to Accuweather.com (Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)