ST. LOUIS – An armada of snow plows and salt spreaders deployed Wednesday on highways across the nation's heartland working to stay ahead of a powerful winter storm that already is blamed for one road death.
Winter storm warnings were issued from Colorado through Illinois, with as much as a foot of snow expected in several areas.
Kelly Sugden, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Dodge City, Kan., said early Thursday morning that the storm was moving a bit slower than was previously forecast but that it was "starting to get back together."
"It's very active," Sugden said, noting the snowfall was mixed with lightning and sleet showers.
Sugden said Wednesday's highest snowfall total for the state was 6 1/2 inches recorded in the tiny central town of Rozel. He said they were expecting heavy snow but not blizzard conditions. Still, he warned that the Interstate 70 corridor could see as much as 13 inches of snow with drifts adding to the danger for drivers.
Heavy snow was already falling in Colorado and western Kansas by midday Wednesday. In Oklahoma, roads were covered with a slushy mix of snow and ice that officials said caused a crash that killed an 18-year-old man.
Cody Alexander, 18, of Alex, Okla., died Wednesday when the pickup truck he was driving skidded out of control in slush on State Highway 19, crossed into oncoming traffic and was hit by a truck, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said. The other driver was not seriously injured.
And in northern Arkansas a school bus crashed Wednesday afternoon on a steep, snowy country road, leaving three students and the driver with minor injuries. Pope County Sheriff Aaron Duval said the bus slid off a road on Crow Mountain, nearly flipping before it was stopped by trees at the roadside.
Officials feared the winter storm would be the worst in the Midwest since the Groundhog Day blizzard in 2011. A two-day storm that began Feb. 1, 2011, was blamed for about two dozen deaths and left hundreds of thousands without power, some for several days. At its peak, the storm created white-out conditions so intense that Interstate 70 was shut down across the entire state of Missouri.
Tim Chojnacki, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said it planned to have salt trucks on the roads before the storm arrived in the Show-Me State in hopes that the precipitation would largely melt upon impact.
Much of Kansas was expected to get up to a foot of snow, which many rural residents welcomed after nearly a year of drought.
Jerry and Diane McReynolds spent part of Wednesday putting out more hay and straw for newborn calves at their farm near Woodston in north central Kansas. The storm made extra work, but Diane McReynolds said it would help their winter wheat, pastures and dried-up ponds.
"In the city you hear they don't want the snow and that sort of thing, and I am thinking, `Yes, we do,' and they don't realize that we need it," she said. "We have to have it or their food cost in the grocery store is going to go very high. We have to have this. We pray a lot for it."
Meanwhile, a separate snow storm caught many drivers by surprise in California, leaving hundreds stranded on mountain highways. A 35-mile stretch of Highway 58 between Mojave and Bakersfield was closed Wednesday, and several school districts closed. No injuries were reported.
Schools also were closed in northern Arizona and Colorado with snow there. Mindy Crane, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said hundreds of plows had been deployed for what was expected to be one of the most significant snow storms of the season.
Just the threat of snow led to a series of shutdowns in the middle of the country. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback closed state government from Thursday morning through Friday morning and urged residents to stay off the roads.
Lawmakers in Nebraska and Iowa cancelled committee meetings and hearings, and the Arkansas Senate voted to recess until Monday so lawmakers could make it home before the worst of the storm hit. University of Nebraska officials moved a Big Ten men's basketball game against Iowa from Thursday to Saturday.
National Weather Service meteorologist Jayson Gosselin said precipitation is generally expected to drop off as the storm makes its way east. Chicago and parts of Indiana, he said, could get about 2 inches of snow and some sleet.