COLUMBIA, Mo. – A monster winter storm bigger than some Midwest cities have seen in years slogged toward the nation's midsection Monday as the region geared up its defenses against a potentially deadly mix of sleet, snow and ice that could affect a third of the nation.
While record snowfalls have pounded the Northeast in what's shaping up to be one of that region's most brutal winters, the Midwest has been comparatively unscathed. Not this time: Up to two feet of snow was forecast for some cities, and the storm was expected to carve a frigid path from Colorado to New England by week's end. Thunderstorms and tornadoes were possible further south.
Patrons lined up by 7 a.m. Monday outside Edele and Mertz Hardware just a few blocks from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis, waiting for the store to open. Snow shovels were big sellers, but worker Steve Edele said ice melt and salt were flying out the door.
"'Freaking out' is a great way of putting it," Edele said. "The icing — that's what scares people."
As the first flakes fell, transportation officials from Kansas City to Detroit readied storm-fighting equipment and some airlines encouraged travelers to rebook flights leaving from Chicago's major airports.
The National Weather Service, meanwhile, suggested any Green Bay Packers fans planning to road trip from Wisconsin to Dallas for the Super Bowl not leave before Wednesday afternoon, by which time authorities hope to have responded to the worst of the weather along the route.
For now, officials are urging residents in the storm's path to stay put.
"We don't like to stop for anything, weather or otherwise," said weather service meteorologist Edward Fenelon in Chicago. "But this may be one of those storms best handled from the comfort of the great indoors."
The weather service said the storm could drop up to an inch of freezing rain and issued a blizzard watch for Tuesday and Wednesday for southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. Snow drifts of 5 feet to 10 feet were possible and the service said Tuesday that winds could reach up to 60 mph in open areas and near Lake Michigan.
Bitterly cold temperatures were forecast in the wake of the storm, with wind chills as cold as 40 degrees below zero possible for parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and other areas.
Dozens of day cares, community organizations, universities and school districts in Kansas and Missouri canceled classes Monday. Illinois lawmakers postponed a planned legislative session until next week and the 2011 Pork Expo in Peoria, Ill., was rescheduled for the middle of February.
The Oklahoma Blood Institute sought immediate blood donations, saying while its current supply is adequate, it could run low if the storm results in a significant slow-down in donations for a couple days.
Freezing drizzle coated roadways across the Plains. A school bus slid off the road in a south Kansas City, Mo., school district, slightly injuring two students. A Wisconsin state trooper was struck and seriously injured while directing traffic around another accident, while the Minnesota State Patrol reported more than 200 crashes statewide, including one authorities said was fatal.
Residents braced for the worse in St. Louis and throughout Missouri, with forecasters calling for a particularly hazardous and potentially deadly mix: Up to an inch of ice, followed by 3-4 inches of sleet, then perhaps a half-foot of snow or more.
Forecasters predicted between 12 inches and 16 inches of snowfall in Columbia, where the university's men's basketball team prepared to leave a day early for a road game at Oklahoma State University scheduled for Wednesday night in Stillwater.
St. Louis-based utility company Ameren opened its emergency operations center amid worries that the weight of the ice and snow could duplicate a severe crisis in 2006, when an ice storm downed thousands of trees and power lines. Parts of southeast Missouri were left without electricity for more than a week.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels directed his state's Department of Homeland Security to coordinate preparations and his office was meeting with utility companies, local emergency agencies, the state highway department and National Guard.
After burying the Midwest, the storm was expected to sweep into the Northeast, parts of which already are on track for record snowfall this winter. In New Hampshire, where pedestrians have been forced to walk in the street in some places because of piled-up snow, crews rushed to remove it before a new foot or so fell on the state.
Associated Press writers Jim Salter in St. Louis; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo.; and Murray Evans in Oklahoma City; and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, Wis. contributed to this report.