CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa Snow is coating streets and highways across Eastern Iowa.
Crews at The Eastern Iowa Airport have been preparing for this winter storm for days. Gibbs leads the effort to keep the runways clear; he said his crew will be working around the clock. "We have our partners in UPS and FedEx that don't tend to quit and they've got packages and need to get places as well," Gibbs said. "Right now, I know UPS doesn't plan on stopping their operations tonight (Thursday)."
Iowa Department of Transportation snowplow drivers in Cedar Rapids received the order to start their engines as the flakes started falling, at around 6 p.m. Thursday. "We'll get our sand loaded up, we'll go out and everybody has their own routes to take care of," said Iowa DOT Snowplow Driver Greg Callanan.
Crews are using salt and sand to treat area highways. They also know the simple act of plowing will be vital during this storm as the inches pile up. A few drivers already noted th at the trip home from work was slippery.
DOT plows are expecting the snow to continue falling at a heavy rate throughout the night. That likely means an even trickier commute in the morning.
Street crews with the City of Cedar Rapids also will be working to keep roads clear throughout the night. They said they'd have dozens working during the early morning hours in hopes of preventing accidents during the morning drive.
Officials say road conditions are rapidly deteriorating in parts of Iowa as a major winter storm moves in.
The state Department of Transportation says strong winds from the east have reduced visibility Thursday afternoon to a quarter to half mile in southern and central Iowa, especially in open areas.
Officials say the snow is moderate, but will intensify in the next few hours. Most roads in southwest and south central Iowa are partially covered in snow or mostly covered.
The widespread winter storm system swirled to the north and east Thursday night, its snow, sleet and freezing rain prompting winter storm warnings in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois.
Corey Mead, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the winter storm would be centered in the upper Midwest by Friday morning.
"Even across Kansas, the snowfall rates should continue to taper off through the evening," Mead said.
The system left behind impressive snow accumulations, especially in western Kansas, where 17 inches fell in Hays.
Several accidents and two deaths were blamed on icy and slushy roadways; two people died in crashes Wednesday. Most schools in Kansas and Missouri, and many in neighboring states, were closed Thursday and legislatures shut down in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said it was "pouring snow" earlier Thursday, with it falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour or more in some spots.
Topeka, Kan., got 3 inches of snow in a 30-minute period, leaving medical center worker Jennifer Carlock to dread the drive home.
"It came on fast," Carlock said as she shoveled around her car. "We're going to test out traction control on the way home."
Snow totals passed the foot mark in many places: the Kansas cities of Hutchinson, Macksville and Hanston all saw 14 inches, and Wichita, Kan., had 13 inches. A few places in far northern Oklahoma saw between 10 to 13½ inches of snow. Missouri's biggest snow total was 10 inches, shared by the Kansas City metropolitan area, Rockport in the northwest corner and Moberly in the central part of the state.
Transportation officials in affected states urged people to simply stay home.
"If you don't have to get out, just really, please, don't do it," Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said. Interstate 70 through Kansas was snow-packed, and a 200-mile stretch between Salina and Colby was closed.
In Iowa, visibility was down to a quarter- to a half-mile on some southern and central Iowa roads, the state Department of Transportation said early Thursday evening.
Driving in the region's cities wasn't much better. Richard Monroe, 27, technology manager and marketing representative for the Missouri State University bookstore in Springfield, and eight of his colleagues arrived in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday for a conference.
He said a shuttle bus that was taking participants from the Weston Crown Center hotel to Bartle Hall, about five minutes away, got stuck in the snow and then ran into a truck. The vehicle was incapacitated for nearly two hours.
"We saw today that Kansas City is just shut down. I've never seen a big city like this where nothing is moving," Monroe said.
But some people came down with cabin fever, like Jennifer McCoy of Wichita, Kan. She loaded her nine children ages 6 months to 16 years in a van for lunch at Applebee's.
"I was going crazy, they were so whiny," McCoy said.
Cases of wine and beer as well as bottles of scotch and whiskey were flying off the shelves at Ingersoll Wine and Spirits ahead of the storm's arrival in Des Moines, Iowa.
"A lot of people have been buying liquor to curl up by the fire," wine specialist Bjorn Carlson said. NWS forecasts showed 3 to 9 inches of snow were expected in Iowa overnight, and Nebraska will see an additional 2 to 5 inches.
Heavy, blowing snow caused scores of businesses in Iowa and Nebraska to close early, including two malls in Omaha, Neb. Mardi Miller, manager of Dillard's department store in Oakview Mall, said most employees had been sent home by 4 p.m., and she believed "only two customers are in the entire store."
The storm brought some relief to a region that has been parched by the worst drought in decades.
Vance Ehmke, a wheat farmer near Healy, Kan., said the nearly foot of snow was "what we have been praying for." Climatologists say 12 inches of snow is equivalent to about 1 inch of rain, depending on the density of the snow.
Near Edwardsville, Ill., farmer Mike Campbell called the precipitation a blessing after a bone-dry growing season in 2012. He hopes it is a good omen for the spring.
"The corn was just a disaster," Campbell said of 2012.
Areas in the Texas Panhandle also had up to 8 inches of snow, and in south central Nebraska, Grand Island reported 10 inches of snow. And Arkansas saw a mix of precipitation a combination of hail, sleet and freezing rain in some place, 6 inches of snow in others.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency Thursday morning. All flights at Kansas City International Airport were canceled for Thursday night, and officials said they'd prepare to reopen Friday morning. More than 320 flights at Lambert Airport in St. Louis were canceled by Thursday afternoon. Traffic throughout the state was snarled by hundreds of accidents and vehicles in ditches.
The University of Missouri canceled classes for one of the few times in its 174-year history. At a nearby Wal-Mart, some students passed the ice scrapers and snow melt, heading directly to the aisles containing sleds and alcohol.
"This isn't our usual Thursday noon routine," Lauren Ottenger, a senior economics major from Denver, said as she stockpiled supplies.