ST. LOUIS — 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" 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 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.
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.
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 by 10 p.m. Wednesday and that most guests were opting to stay an extra day.
Just south of Wichita, near the small community of Clearwater, Scott Van Allen had already shoveled the sidewalks Thursday and was out on his tractor clearing the driveway of the 10 inches of snow — just in case he might need to go out. 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 moisture 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. "We desperately need this."
Near Edwardsville, Ill., wheat 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 as he prepares to plant corn this spring.
"The corn was just a disaster," Campbell said.
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 by Thursday morning. Christy Walker, a waitress at the Polly Anna Cafe in Woodward, Okla., got stuck on 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."
Elsewhere, Arkansas saw a mix of precipitation — in places, a combination of hail, sleet and freezing rain, others saw 6 inches of snow. 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, 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 SUV 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. By midmorning Thursday, the snow was coming down so hard that Kansas City International Airport shut down. More than 200 flights were also canceled by Thursday afternoon at Lambert Airport in St. Louis.
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.; Jim Suhr in St. Louis; and Steven K. Paulson in Denver contributed to this report.