ST. LOUIS (AP) — Blinding snow, at times accompanied by thunder and lightning, bombarded much of the nation's midsection Thursday, causing whiteout conditions, making major roadways all but impassable and shutting down schools and state legislatures.
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 was expected to get 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 early in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
By midmorning Thursday, the snowfall was so heavy that Kansas City International Airport shut down. About 90 flights were also cancelled at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, where sleet and ice began falling late-morning.
"Thundersnow" accompanied the winter storm in parts of Kansas and Missouri, which National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said is 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 1 1/2 to 2 inches per hour in some spots. Kansas City, Mo., got 5 inches in two hours.
Snow totals passed the foot mark in many places: Monarch Pass, Colo., had 17 ½ inches, Hutchinson, Kan., 14 inches and Wichita, Kan., 13 inches. The National Weather Service said up to 18 inches of snow were possible in Kansas towns such as Salina, Russell and Great Bend.
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, as whiteout conditions meant low visibility for the length of the turnpike, from Oklahoma to Kansas City.
Interstate 70, which runs the length of Kansas, was also snow-packed and icy. State transportation officials closed a 90-mile stretch of I-70 between Salina and Hays.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback closed executive offices, except for essential personnel.
"If you don't have to get out, just really, please, don't do it," Brownback said.
Some travelers gave up, filling 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 by 10 p.m. Wednesday and that most guests were opting to stay an extra day. He said travelers reported that snow was freezing on their windshields faster than wipers could keep them clean.
The blowing snow didn't stop everyone. Christy Walker, a waitress at the Polly Anna Cafe in Woodward, Okla., got stuck in the 8 inches of snow during her drive into work. But business in the western Oklahoma town was brisk, she said.
"It's affecting everybody who is hungry and wants to come out to eat," she said. "I'm extremely busy right now."
Areas in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle also had up to 8 inches of snow by Thursday morning. Arkansas saw a mix of precipitation — some got a combination of hail, sleet and freezing rain, while others got up to 6 inches of snow. Forecasters warned that northern Arkansas could get a half-inch of ice accumulation.
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.
Two fatal accidents were attributed to winter weather on Wednesday. In Oklahoma, 18-year-old Cody Alexander of Alex, Okla., died when his pickup truck skidded on a slushy state highway into oncoming traffic and struck a truck. And in Nebraska, 19-year-old Kristina Leigh Anne Allen of Callaway died when a sport utility vehicle lost control in snowy, icy conditions, crossed the median and struck her car.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency Thursday morning and activated the State Emergency Operations Center. The declaration allows state agencies to coordinate directly with cities and counties to provide emergency services.
Kansas City-area roads were a mess. Portions of I-70 and I-35 were closed along with many other roads because of snow drifts and slippery conditions. The Missouri Department of Transportation said Interstate 44 near Springfield was completely covered with ice Thursday morning, and traffic was moving very slow.
In Jefferson City, Mo., off-duty police sergeant Randy Werner had been perched atop a hotel for more than 24 hours as a publicity stunt for a charitable fundraiser.
As large snowflakes pelted him in the face Thursday morning, Werner defiantly declared: "The weather's not bothering me, I can assure you."
He then acknowledged that was a lie.
"It's blustery," he said. Werner planned to cut his effort short, having raised less than a third of his goal.
The St. Louis region prepared with some uncertainty. Depending on the temperature and the trajectory of the storm, St. Louis could get snow, freezing rain, ice, sleet or all or some of the above. Crews were hoping to spread enough salt to keep at least the major roadways moving.
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, 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.; 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.; and Steven K. Paulson in Denver contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.