DES MOINES, Iowa – A gigantic storm dumped more than a foot of snow across much of the Midwest and New England as it marched eastward Wednesday, creating blizzard conditions, burying cars under huge drifts and providing ammunition for a massive campus snowball fight in Wisconsin.
Even more snow fell in some areas, with 16 inches reported in Des Moines and nearly 19 inches just south of Madison, Wis. Gusts of up to 50 mph created snow drifts between 8 and 15 feet tall and even knocked down a two-story Christmas tree in downtown Champaign, Ill.
The storm was blamed for at least 16 deaths, most in traffic accidents. Hundreds of schools canceled classes, power was knocked out to thousands of people from Missouri to New York and hundreds of flights were canceled.
In the Twin Cities, where about 6 inches of snow fell and the wind chill dipped to minus 9 degrees, Kent Barnard eased a massive orange snowplow into traffic in the suburb of Arden Hills on Wednesday morning. He dropped the right wing of the plow down onto the shoulder, making a grinding sound as the wing sent out a spray of snow.
"You gotta watch it because some people try to sneak up around you," Barnard said. "They'll see that big orange flashing truck coming and go, 'I don't want to get caught behind that thing."'
The storm felt like a rude surprise after an unseasonably warm and dry November in parts of the region. The massive system is the first major blast of wintry weather for many parts of the Midwest.
"I've been dreading this day," said Kim Brust, shoveling the sidewalk in front of his Minneapolis home before sunrise Wednesday. "I was starting to enjoy the global warming."
While an inconvenience for many, others took an opportunity to play.
At least 3,000 University of Wisconsin-Madison students took advantage of an unplanned day off and hurled snowballs at each other in a massive melee. Classes had been canceled for the first time in 19 years due to more than a foot of snow and blizzard-like conditions.
Some came holding trays as shields. Others were bundled up to protect themselves from the below-freezing temperatures and winds that gusted to more than 20 mph. Several went shirtless, though, while at least one had on pajamas.
"I figured with the day off, there was no better way to spend it than with a snowball fight," said Matt Moerel, 19, of Vadnais Heights, Minn.
Many New England residents braced for bone-chilling winds after digging out from a foot or more of snow. But Gavin Graham, 8, of Concord, N.H., spent two hours sledding.
"It was really good sledding. The snow was puffy, and that was really good because we had little jumps already made," he said. "It was awesome having the day off from school."
Up to 7 inches of snow fell in northeast Pennsylvania and 50 mph winds were recorded near Pittsburgh. High winds knocked down part of an abandoned four-story brick building in New Castle.
By the time the storm moves off the Maine coast Thursday night, it may have affected as much as two-thirds of the country, said Jim Lee, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Des Moines. The storm also brought heavy rain and flooding to parts of the South.
In the West, pounded by the storm's rain and snow earlier this week, wind chills as low as minus 40 degrees swept across portions of southern Montana. The biting wind also moved across Wyoming and South Dakota, according to the National Weather Service.
Winds were expected to diminish Wednesday evening across the Midwest and blizzard warnings were nearly over. But dangerously cold conditions were to follow with temperatures falling to near or below zero overnight.
In northern New York, up to a foot fell on Wednesday and more than 3 feet was expected by the week's end. Areas in Maine and New Hampshire received up to a foot of snow, and warnings about winds of 40 mph to 50 mph were issued for coastal areas of Maine for Wednesday night, said Dan St. Jean, a National Weather Service Forecaster in Maine.