ST. LOUIS - Powdery snow bombarded much of the nation's midsection Thursday, leaving as much as 17 inches in some places, shutting down airports, schools and state legislatures.
The storm system swirled to the north and east Thursday night, its snow, sleet and freezing rain prompting winter storm warnings from Kansas to Illinois. Forecasters say the storm will continue its crawl overnight, hitting the upper Midwest by Friday morning.
The system has already left impressive snow accumulations, especially in Kansas, where a foot and half of snow fell in Hays. Farther east in Topeka, 3 inches of snow fell in only 30 minutes, leaving medical centre worker Jennifer Carlock to dread the drive home.
"It came on fast," Carlock said as she shovelled around her car. "We're going to test out traction control on the way home."
Numerous accidents and two deaths were being blamed on the icy, slushy roadways. Most schools in Kansas and Missouri, and many in neighbouring states, were closed and legislatures shut down in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said it was "pouring snow" earlier Thursday, with it falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour or more in some spots.
All flights at Kansas City International Airport were cancelled for Thursday night, and officials said they'd prepare to reopen Friday morning. In St. Louis, more than 320 flights at Lambert Airport were cancelled, and traffic throughout the state was snarled by hundreds of accidents.
Northern Oklahoma saw between 10 and 13 1/2 inches of snow. Missouri's biggest snow total was 10 inches, shared by the Kansas City metropolitan area, Rockport in the northwest corner and Moberly in the central part of the state.
But the highest amounts were in Kansas, where snow totals hit 14 inches Hutchinson, Macksville and Hanston, and 13 inches in Wichita.
Transportation officials in affected those states urged people to simply stay home.
"If you don't have to get out, just really, please, don't do it," Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said. Interstate 70 through Kansas was snow-packed, and a 200-mile stretch between Salina and Colby was closed. The Kansas National Guard has 12 teams patrolling three state highways in Humvees to rescue motorists stranded by the storm.
For those who needed to drive, it's wasn't a fun commute.
Richard Monroe, a technology manager and marketing representative for the Missouri State University bookstore, said he arrived with eight of his colleagues in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday for a conference. He said a shuttle bus taking them on what should have been a five-minute trip got stuck in the snow. Then it ran into a truck.
The vehicle was incapacitated for nearly two hours.
"We saw today that Kansas City is just shut down. I've never seen a big city like this where nothing is moving," the 27-year-old said.
Others people came down with cabin fever, including Jennifer McCoy of Wichita, Kan. She loaded her nine children — ages 6 months to 16 years — in a van for lunch at Applebee's.
"I was going crazy, they were so whiny," McCoy said.
In Iowa, cases of wine and beer — along with bottles of scotch and whiskey — were flying off the shelves at Ingersoll Wine and Spirits ahead of the storm's arrival in Des Moines.
"A lot of people have been buying liquor to curl up by the fire," wine specialist Bjorn Carlson said.
The storm is expected to drop 3 to 9 inches of snow in Iowa overnight, while Nebraska will see another 2 to 5 inches.
Heavy, blowing snow caused scores of businesses in Iowa and Nebraska to close early, including two malls in Omaha, Neb. Mardi Miller, manager of Dillard's department store in Oakview Mall, said most employees had been sent home by 4 p.m., and she believed "only two customers are in the entire store."
Back in Kansas, Katie Nungesser of the People's City Mission says her shelter is over capacity, so people are being placed in the shelter's chapel, lounges, and even a kitchen nook.
"When it gets like this, we just stuff every part of this building," she said of the 24-hour shelter. "We'll have people sleeping everywhere."
The storm brought some relief to a region that has been parched by the worst drought in decades.
Vance Ehmke, a wheat farmer near Healy, Kan., said the nearly foot of snow was "what we have been praying for." Climatologists say 12 inches of snow is equivalent to about 1 inch of rain, depending on the density of the snow.
Near Edwardsville, Ill., farmer Mike Campbell called the precipitation a blessing after a bone-dry growing season in 2012. He hopes it is a good omen for the spring.
"The corn was just a disaster," Campbell said of 2012.
Areas in the Texas Panhandle also had up to 8 inches of snow, and in south central Nebraska, Grand Island reported 10 inches of snow. Arkansas saw a mix of precipitation — a combination of hail, sleet and freezing rain in some place, 6 inches of snow in others.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency Thursday morning. All flights at Kansas City International Airport were cancelled for Thursday night, and officials said they'd prepare to reopen Friday morning.
More than 320 flights at Lambert Airport in St. Louis were cancelled by Thursday afternoon. Traffic throughout the state was snarled by hundreds of accidents and vehicles in ditches.
The University of Missouri cancelled classes for one of the few times in its 174-year history. At a nearby Wal-Mart, some students passed the ice scrapers and snow melt, heading directly to the aisles containing sleds and alcohol.
"This isn't our usual Thursday noon routine," Lauren Ottenger, a senior economics major from Denver, said as she stockpiled supplies.
Associated Press writers Alan Scher Zagier in Columbia, Mo.; Bill Draper and Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Mo.; Margery Beck in Omaha, Neb.; John Hanna in Topeka, Kan.; Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kan.; Catherine Lucey and Barbara Rodriguez in Des Moines, Iowa; Tim Talley in Oklahoma City; Chuck Bartels in Little Rock, Ark.; and Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.