ST. LOUIS, Mo. (USA TODAY) - A powerful storm was blasting its way across the nation's midsection Thursday, with more than a foot of snow already on the ground in some areas and many more bracing for the brunt of winter's fury.
Farther to the south, on the warmer side of the storm, eastern Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi faced a threat of tornadoes, hail and high winds.
But snow and ice were in the mix for a wide swath of the nation. Parts of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas already have been blasted with more than a foot of snow, the National Weather Service said Thursday. Some areas of the Midwest could see that much and more, with sleet and freezing rain exacerbating treacherous conditions.
The highest amount recorded so far from the storm is 14.2 inches in Jetmore, Kan., according to the Weather Channel. Wichita's storm total so far is 11.4 inches, which is the 7th biggest snowstorm on record in the city and the largest since 1987. Topeka has measured 11 inches.
"Thundersnow" in some areas meant that "instead of pouring rain, it's pouring snow" -- at a rate of 1 1/2 to 2 inches per hour in some spots, National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said.
Winter storm warnings and advisories have been issued from eastern Colorado all the way to southwestern Virginia. Officials feared the storm would be the worst in the central U.S. since the Groundhog Day blizzard in 2011, which killed dozens and left hundreds of thousands powerless.
Kansas City International Airport shut down, and almost 200 flights had been canceled, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. Cancellations also were piling up at other airports in the storm's path in St. Louis, Dallas Fort/Worth, Houston,Chicago O'Hare, Denver, Omaha, Wichita and Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Some solace: Most big airlines had issued flexible rebooking policies for fliers with flights to, from or through the central United States.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency statewide as a mixture of snow, sleet, and ice paralyzed the state. Some areas were projected to get more than 10 inches of snow.
In Iowa, snow is expected to fall at up to 2 inches per hour with wind gusts reaching 30 mph during the peak of the storm Thursday evening, said the weather service's Roger Vachalek.
In Oklahoma, roads were covered with a slushy mix of snow and ice that the Highway Patrol said caused a crash that killed an 18-year-old man.
In northern Arkansas, a school bus crashed Wednesday 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.
The World Golf Championship Match Play event Wednesday near Tucson was suspended due to snow, and University of Nebraska officials moved a Big Ten men's basketball game against Iowa from Thursday to Saturday.
In Arkansas, an emergency preparedness drill using an ice storm as the precipitating event involving hospitals and emergency personnel in Baxter and Marion counties was canceled because of the approaching ice storm.
In California, snow stranded hundreds of drivers on mountain highways earlier on Wednesday.
The storm will also bring heavy rain, strong winds -- but also much-needed moisture -- for the drought-scorched Plains.
"Many areas of the drought region should enjoy their wettest day in months," said meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground.
"As bad off as we are this fall and winter, it will definitely help," said climatologist Mark Svoboda.
The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 77% of the state of Nebraska is enduring "exceptional" drought conditions, the highest level of drought. In Kansas, 36% of the state is under exceptional drought.
"We'll put up with a blizzard to get this critical moisture rather than the alternative of no blizzard -- as we aren't in a position to be too choosy about how we get that moisture," Svoboda said.
Farmers in drought-plagued Kansas agreed: ""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," said farmer Diane McReynolds of Woodson, Kan.
"We have to have it or their food cost in the grocery store is going to go very high," she said. "We have to have this. We pray a lot for it."
Contributing: Ben Mutzabaugh; Brandie Piper, KDSK.com; Jens Manuel Krogstad, The Des Moines Register; Alia E. Dastagir in McLean, Va.; Associated Press