Massive winter storm blitzes U.S.



-- A vast winter storm brought blizzard conditions and record snowfall to large sections of the upper Midwest and Ohio Valley early Wednesday.

The brutal weather gobbled up travelers trying to make their way on snow-choked roadways and snarled air traffic, forcing airlines to cancel thousands of flights again on Wednesday.

Chicago is at the epicenter of the storm, receiving a record-breaking 13.6 inches of snow at O'Hare International Airport Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

The total not only breaks the previous record of 4.0 inches for the date set back on February 1, 1967, but it also establishes a new all-time record daily snowfall for the month of February for the city.

The previous calendar day snowfall record for Chicago for February was 11.5 inches set on February 18, 1908.

The National Weather Service in the Wind City is asking residents not to travel unless "absolutely necessary."

"Reports from media and local law enforcement officially indicate that hundreds if not thousands of vehicles have gone off the roads," the weather service said early Wednesday morning.

Chicago's iconic Lake Shore Drive, which fronts Lake Michigan, was temporarily closed overnight "due to poor traffic conditions, multiple accidents, and stuck vehicles, including some buses."

Illinois State Police carried out a rescue operation in Kankakee County after 20 cars were stranded in the snowstorm, where snow drifts were measured around 3 feet, the agency said.

The rescued motorists were taken to temporary warming centers in Manteno or Peotone, said state police Sgt. Angie Kinstner.

In Wisconsin, the Department of Transportation reported that I-42 and I-94 were impassible south of Milwaukee. The National Guard was making a sweep of the interstates for stranded motorists.

Air travel was just as difficult across the region.

O'Hare was expected to have limited or no flight operations on Wednesday, said Karen Pride, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation. More than 1,300 flights were canceled on Tuesday.

At Chicago's Midway Airport, airlines canceled flight operations on Tuesday. The carriers expect to begin operating again on Wednesday afternoon, although most weren't likely to resume before evening, Pride said.

Nationwide, airlines canceled more than 4,000 flights Tuesday, with thousands more grounded for Wednesday.

Continental Airlines said it was suspending operations at New Jersey's Newark International Airport through noon Wednesday.

Blizzard warnings are spread across eight states -- from eastern Kansas to western Ohio. Heavy snow is expected from Missouri to New Hampshire.

Smack in the middle of the storm track is Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of a certain groundhog, who has been forecasting the end of winter for more than 100 years.

If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow Wednesday morning, it means six more weeks of winter, according to legend. No shadow means an early spring.

After this week, even the National Weather Service might be keeping a close eye on Phil's prognostication.

The far-reaching storm brought needed rain to much of the Southeast, but unwelcome ice and hard freeze warnings in other places, as far south as Corpus Christi, Texas.

High-wind warnings were posted in eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, with gusts of 55 mph forecast in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

The National Weather Service forecasts and advisories through Wednesday night read like the Abominable Snow Monster's Christmas list: Up to 14 inches of snow in South Bend, Indiana, with winds up to 30 mph; Up 13 inches of snow and a low of 12 below zero in Ottumwa, Iowa; as much as 13 inches of new snow in Berlin, New Hampshire, by Wednesday night; hard freeze warnings in Houston and Galveston, Texas.

In Chicago, part of a fiberboard roof panel behind home plate at Wrigley Field, home of the baseball Cubs, broke away in the high wind, the ball club said. Police roped off nearby streets and sidewalks as a precaution, the club said.

Drifting and blowing snow closed parts of interstate highways in Oklahoma and Missouri, while police in St. Louis stopped patrolling in advance of the worst of the storm.

Ice is the larger threat in a band that extended from south of St. Louis to western Connecticut and parts of New Jersey. In those regions, more than an inch of ice could accumulate, downing trees and power lines. All of western Maryland was under a freezing rain advisory.

An ice storm warning covered 29 counties in central and southern Indiana. In the city of Greenwood, a command center was set up to deal with downed trees and other hazards that might impede first responders during emergencies. By Tuesday evening, a quarter-inch of ice had accumulated on trees in the area, with at least a half-inch expected, Fire Chief James Sipes told CNN affiliate WAVE of Louisville, Kentucky.

"The last time we had an event of this nature was in 1988," Sipes said, "and it caused substantial damage."

The nasty weather is even threatening festivities surrounding the Super Bowl, set for Sunday in Dallas. Icy conditions forced Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to temporarily close Tuesday morning. The airport reopened after a two-hour closure with one runway in operation, airport officials told CNN. Nearby Love Field was also forced to close and was expected to reopen by 2 p.m. (3 p.m. ET).

"We had thunderstorms, we had rain, we had freezing rain, ice pellets, sleet -- the only thing we didn't have was hail and sunshine," said Ed Martelle, the spokesman for AMR Corp., which owns American Airlines.

In Missouri, whiteout conditions forced the closure of I-70 through the middle part of the state.

"This is not a good time to be on the road," Missouri highway department official Don Hillis said. "Almost all of the state is covered with snow and some areas are receiving ice, making some roads impassable."

The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety reported that westbound Interstate 40 in Seminole and Okfuskee counties was closed Tuesday afternoon with 4-foot snow drifts. The department said some arterial roads and all secondary routes in parts of eastern Oklahoma were nearly impassable.

The Will Rogers Turnpike, I-44 in northeast Oklahoma, also was closed, and the National Guard was rescuing people trapped in their cars, the department said.

Tow trucks were running as much three hours behind in some parts of the state, it said.

In Tulsa, even police cars and ambulances got stuck in the snow. The snowfall also collapsed part of a roof at the Hard Rock Casino Tulsa, according to Amanda Clinton, a spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation, which owns the casino. No one was injured.

Those who ventured out did so against the advice of government and emergency officials, who urged people to stay off the roads and inside, and prepare for the worst.

Up to 16 inches of snow are expected in parts of Michigan, with winds up to 40 mph causing significant drifts, according to CNN affiliate WILX in Lansing. Winds were gusting at 33 mph at Detroit City Airport Tuesday night, with the temperature at 17 degrees.

Michigan's emergency management department has posted an advisory for residents to "have essential supplies ready to stay safe at home, at work and in their vehicles."

As the storm approached, governments vowed they would be ready for what was being described as a storm of historic proportions.

Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma and Kansas declared states of emergency so they could bring extra resources to bear. Missouri mobilized 600 National Guard troops to help cope with the storm. Illinois put 500 troops on notice that they might be needed as the storm intensifies. Iowa also activated some guard members.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe also declared a state of emergency and activated National Guard troops to help move supplies to the northwestern portion of the state, where power outages are expected as snow, ice and high winds move in.

Warming centers set up by the Salvation Army were running and busy in Fayetteville and Bentonville, according to CNN affiliate KFTA.

"We are known for wild weather swings in Arkansas, but to have snow, ice and severe thunderstorms in the same day is rare," Beebe said.

The White House press office issued a statement saying President Barack Obama had told the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be prepared to help state and local governments with widespread power outages and other issues arising from the storm.

Plummeting temperatures were expected to filter in behind the system, dropping to below zero in the upper Plains states over the next few days. Parts of the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma also will experience some of the coldest air this season, CNN meteorologist Sean Morris said.

Up to 16 inches of snow were forecast to fall in Chicago overnight, with another 8 inches possible during the day. Winds are gusting up to 55 mph.