More than a foot of snow fell across parts of Kansas, while blowing winds created massive snowdrifts, exacerbating hazardous driving conditions. Highway I-70 was closed for 90 miles from Hays, Kansas eastward to Salina and hotel rooms were fast filling up along the corridor. Shelters were opened for stranded travelers.
Winter storm warnings and advisories continued for much of the central and southern Plains and into the upper Midwest and Mississippi River Valley as the storm moved east dropping snow, sleet and freezing rain, the National Weather Service said.
The fierce storm was expected to spawn thunderstorms and rain on its southern edge from eastern Texas to Georgia, the forecaster said. Ice storm warnings were in effect for parts of northern Arkansas.
Thunder accompanied snow in Kansas City, hit by 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour on Thursday morning.
"When there is thunder and lightning, it's a pretty screaming clue that you are going to have massive snowfall," said Andy Bailey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, Missouri.
Snow tapered off by early afternoon.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback declared states of emergency because of hazardous travel and possible power outages. Brownback ordered state offices closed because of the storm.
Kansas City International Airport was closed on Thursday while crews cleared runways. It was unclear when the airport would reopen, spokesman Joe McBride said.
At Denver International Airport, some 55 commuter flights were canceled overnight, spokeswoman Laura Coale said. More than 320 flights in and out of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport were scrapped and nearly 50 flights in and out of Omaha's Eppley Airfield were listed as canceled by midday.
In Nebraska, a 19-year-old woman was killed in a two-car accident on Wednesday on Interstate 80 near Giltner. The Nebraska State Patrol said weather was a factor.
The brunt of the snowstorm churned through Kansas, causing scores of accidents and forcing vehicles off roads, but there were no fatalities, according to the state highway patrol.
Six Kansas Highway patrol cars and some tow trucks were stuck in the Lawrence, Kansas, area Thursday afternoon as they tried to reach stranded motorists, highway patrol spokesman Joshua Kellerman said.
"People are getting stuck in the middle of the roadway, it's just that deep," Kellerman said.
The Missouri Highway Patrol reported a dozen accidents in the district around St. Louis as sleet and snow began to blanket area roads around midmorning, Sergeant Al Nothum said.
Some parts of southeast Kansas reported power outages because warmer temperatures created sleet and ice on power lines, said Sharon Watson, a spokesperson for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.
Up to 12.5 inches of snow fell in the northern part of Oklahoma, while Nebraska received 5 to 9 inches, the National Weather Service said. Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, were bracing for 8 inches of snow or more.
Schools across parts of Iowa sent students home Thursday morning as snow arrived there, officials said.
Drought-stricken farmers in the Great Plains, one of the world's largest wheat-growing areas, welcomed the moisture brought by the storm, although experts said more rain or snow would be needed to ensure healthy crops.
Snow from the powerful storm fell as far south as Tucson, Arizona, on Wednesday. The rare snowfall halted play at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play tournament near Tucson.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Ben Berkowitz, Keith Coffman in Denver, Suzi Parker in Little Rock, Kay Henderson in Des Moines, Steve Olafson in Oklahoma City and Tim Bross in St. Louis; Editing by Paul Thomasch and David Gregorio)