With a "life-threatening" snowstorm forecast to drop a foot or more of snow in south central and southwest Wisconsin by Thursday night, officials warned of impending traffic chaos and advised people to stay home. Every Dane County school district took the advice and canceled classes Thursday.
Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency and municipalities across Wisconsin issued dire warnings in advance of the snow.
"We're asking people to stay off the roads for 24 to 36 hours," Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said Wednesday.
A winter storm warning remains in effect for the area until noon Thursday and a blizzard warning from noon until midnight, the National Weather Service said in its update about 5 a.m. Thursday.
Snow began falling at around 9 p.m. Wednesday in Madison and 5 to 6 inches were on the ground in the Madison area by about 5 a.m., Weather Central meteorologist Bill Romine told Madison.com.
Rain was mixing into the snow south and east of Madison and that would hold snow totals down for those areas, Romine said.
"Temperatures are right around 33, 34 now and the rain/snow line is just south of Madison," he said.
Romine expected Madison to get another inch or 2 of snow by noon, when the precipitation would turn over to all snow and pick up again.
By the time the snow finally tapers off Thursday night, Madison should have 10 to 12 inches, with higher totals to the north and west and lower totals to the south and east, Romine said.
He said if the storm delivered all snow, Madison would end up with 15 to 18 inches, rivaling the 18.7 inches of the Groundhog Blizzard of 2011.
The Weather Service said the rain/snow mix was expected to occur south of a line from Monroe to Madison to Waupun.
27 Storm Track meteorologist Brian Olson predicted Thursday morning that 11 to 14 inches of snow should fall around Madison, with 14 to 17 inches to the north and west, and 5 to 11 inches to the south and east.
Winds were blowing at 22 miles per hour and gusting to 29 about 5 a.m. Thursday, Romine said, but that was expected to pick up to 45 miles per hour Thursday afternoon into the overnight. With temperatures falling to about 20, the snow will get drier and significant blowing and drifting with near-zero visibility, whiteouts and blizzard conditions is predicted.
"Travel Friday morning will not be real good," Romine said. "It still will be real windy and there will be plenty of blowing and drifting, especially on east/west roads."
The storm stemmed from strong low pressure tracking northeast to Chicago Thursday afternoon and then lower Michigan Thursday night, putting the heaviest snow band over our area.
The good news is that forecasters say the weekend should be sunny and quiet with slight chances for snow early next week.
The county activated emergency operations at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The state activated its Emergency Operations Center two hours later to keep track of the storm that was impacting Wisconsin's two major traffic corridors, said emergency government spokesman Tod Pritchard.
Every school district in Dane County canceled Thursday's classes. Madison's cancellations included athletic events and other scheduled evening activities.
UW-Madison canceled Thursday's in-person exams, and Madison Area Technical College and Edgewood College canceled classes and closed their campuses. MATC also canceled its graduation ceremonies Thursday.
Metro Transit canceled all service on Thursday.
Municipal and county offices were closed Thursday.
A snow emergency was declared for Thursday and Friday so crews can clear streets. Streets Division Superintendent Chris Kelley asked residents to get all vehicles off the streets during the snow emergency if possible. The city is offering free parking in its garages from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. during the snow emergency.
Residential streets will not be plowed until the snow stops, Kelley said.
Other municipalities already have snow emergencies in effect, with parking prohibited on city streets through 7 a.m. Friday in Sun Prairie and noon Friday in Monona.
Thursday morning rush hour travel was not too bad, officials reported, but they advised that the afternoon could be much worse.
Madison streets crews were out Wednesday putting salt brine on main streets and bridges to help keep the storm's early snow from sticking to the pavement.
Parisi and other county officials delivered a briefing Wednesday morning standing in front of a county plow at the Dane County Garage on Fish Hatchery Road. The orange behemoth can hydraulically channel mountains of snow from highway to ditch at speeds of 30 miles an hour.
Public Works Director Jerry Mandli advised motorists to give plows room — including room to turn — and "don't pass them, because conditions are worse ahead." It's also important to avoid the plows' blind spots, which fan out to the sides and behind the truck.
Emergency Management Director Charles Tubbs advised people to "monitor you family, your neighbors and your pets."
Sheriff Dave Mahoney reminded motorists to keep emergency supplies in their cars and "let someone know your plans." Area snowmobile clubs have been alerted their help might be needed, in addition to the two snow ambulances at its disposal, he said.
Parisi said people should work at home if they can, and employers should be mindful of the practicalities of flexibility in work schedules during a weather crisis.
Keith Beutel of Belleville drives one of those huge double-wing plows, a 2-year-old truck, number 4131, with a 4-foot high, 12 foot-long blade curled into a "J." (It's a Universal BH1248 model, made in Centerville, Wis.)
"That (plow) will push whatever we get put in front of us," he predicted.
Beutel is expecting a long weekend, but a considerably less bumpy route than last year. That's because his route includes Broadway, Highway 51 and the once notoriously pot-holed and corrugated Monona Drive, which was rebuilt last summer.
The plow driver's advice: "Slow down, work with us and we'll all be home safe for Christmas."
Wednesday’s high of 34 in Madison was 5 degrees above normal and 19 degrees below the record high for Dec. 19 of 53 set in 1918.
The low on Wednesday was 23, 8 degrees above normal and 48 degrees above the record low for Dec. 19 of 25 below set in 1983.
Officially, 1.9 inches of snow was recorded at the Dane County Regional Airport on Wednesday, boosting the December and meteorological winter total to 7.4 inches, 1 inch below normal. For the snow season (since July 1), Madison has received 7.5 inches, 5 inches below normal.
Officially, 0.17 inches of precipitation was recorded at the Dane County Regional Airport on Wednesday, boosting Madison’s December and meteorological winter (December through February) precipitation total (rain plus snow converted to liquid) to 1.37 inches, 0.17 inches above normal. For the year, Madison has received 25.13 inches of precipitation, 8.81 inches below normal.
State Journal reporters George Hesselberg, Sandy Cullen and Dan Simmons and Capital Times reporters Jeff Richgels and Bill Novak contributed to this report.