ST. LOUIS (AP) — Blinding snow, at times accompanied by thunder and lightning, bombarded much of the nation's midsection Thursday, causing whiteout conditions, shutting down large swaths of interstate highways and forcing schools, businesses and even state legislatures to close.
Kansas was the epicenter of the winter storm, with parts of the state buried under 14 inches of powdery snow, but winter storm warnings stretched from eastern Colorado through Illinois. Freezing rain and sleet were forecast for southern Missouri, southern Illinois and Arkansas. St. Louis received all of the above — a treacherous mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain.
Several accidents were blamed on icy and slushy roadways, including two fatal accidents. Most schools in Kansas and Missouri, and many in neighboring states, were closed. Legislatures shut down in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
"Thundersnow" rumbled through Kansas and Missouri earlier Thursday. National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said that's the result of an unstable air mass, much like a thunderstorm.
"Instead of pouring rain, it's pouring snow," Truett said. And pouring was a sound description, with snow falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour or more in some spots.
Topeka got 3 inches of snow in one 30-minute period, leaving medical center worker Jennifer Carlock to dread the drive home.
"It came on fast," Carlock said as she shoveled around her car. "We're going to test out traction control on the way home."
Snow totals passed the foot mark in many places: Monarch Pass, Colo., had 17½ inches, Hutchinson, Kan., 14 inches and Wichita, Kan., 13 inches. A few places in far northern Oklahoma saw between 10 to 13½ inches of snow. The National Weather Service said up to 18 inches of snow were possible in central Kansas.
With that in mind, Kansas transportation officials — and even the governor — urged people to simply stay home.
Drivers were particularly warned away from the Kansas Turnpike, which had whiteout conditions. Interstate 70 was also snow-packed and a 90-mile stretch of that road was closed between Salina and Hays.
"If you don't have to get out, just really, please, don't do it," Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said.
Travelers filled hotels rather than skating across dangerous roadways. At the Econo Lodge in WaKeeney, Kan., assistant manager Michael Tidball said the 48-room hotel was full.
But there were a few that came down with cabin fever, like Jennifer McCoy of Wichita. 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. They planned to build an igloo after lunch.
Just south of Wichita near the small community of Clearwater, Scott Van Allen had already shoveled the sidewalks and was on his tractor clearing the driveway of the 10 inches of snow. For once, he didn't mind the task.
"I kind of enjoyed it this time," he said. "We were certainly needing the moisture terribly."
The storm brought some relief to a region of the country that has been parched for nearly a year, engulfed in the worst drought in decades. Climatologists say 12 inches of snow is equivalent to about 1 inch of rain, depending on the density of the snow.
Vance Ehmke, a wheat farmer near Healy, Kan., said the nearly foot of snow was "what we have been praying for."
"The big question is, 'Is the drought broke?' " Ehmke asked.
Near Edwardsville, Ill., farmer Mike Campbell called the snow — or any 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.
In Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service planned to take advantage of the snow to burn piles of dead trees on federal land.
Near the Nebraska-Kansas border, as much as 8 inches fell overnight, while western Nebraska saw about half of that amount, National Weather Service forecaster Shawn Jacobs said. Areas in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle also had up to 8 inches of snow.
Elsewhere, Arkansas saw a mix of precipitation — a combination of hail, sleet and freezing rain in some place, 6 inches of snow in others. Forecasters warned northern Arkansas could get a half-inch of ice.
Two fatal accidents were attributed to winter weather on Wednesday. In Oklahoma, 18-year-old Cody Alexander of Alex died when his pickup truck skidded into oncoming traffic and hit a truck. And in Nebraska, 19-year-old Kristina Leigh Anne Allen of Callaway died when a SUV lost control, crossed the median and struck her car.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency Thursday morning. Kansas City International Airport shut down by midmorning; more than 320 flights were canceled at Lambert Airport in St. Louis.
The University of Missouri canceled 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.
Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist for Accuweather, said the storm will push off into the Great Lakes and central Appalachians, and freezing rain could make it as far east and south as North Carolina. He also said a "spin-off" storm was expected to create heavy snow in New England on Saturday, and could push Boston to a February record.
Accuweather said that by the time the storm dies out, at least 24 states will be affected.
Associated Press writers Chris Clark in Kansas City, Mo.; Alan Scher Zagier and Jordan Shapiro in Columbia, Mo.; David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo.; Josh Funk and Nelson Lampe in Omaha, Neb.; John Hanna in Topeka, Kan.; Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kan.; Tim Talley in Oklahoma City; David Warren in Dallas; Chuck Bartels in Little Rock, Ark.; Jim Suhr in St. Louis; and Steven K. Paulson in Denver contributed to this report.