DES MOINES — A snowstorm that blanketed parts of the Plains and Midwest in snow and ice and forced truckers to take a night off made commuting a grind Friday morning as it slowly moved to the north and east.
Powerful wind gusts churned-up snow and created large drifts on many Midwest roadways, making navigating the slick conditions all the more difficult.
At a Travel Centers of America truck stop in the central Illinois city of Effingham, all of the 137 parking spaces were filled by truckers unwilling to drive through the storm overnight.
"When it gets really bad, they like to camp out," cashier Tia Schneider said Thursday night, noting that some drivers called ahead. "They can make reservations from 500 miles away to make sure a space is available."
Strong gusts off Lake Michigan were making driving treacherous for commuters in eastern Wisconsin, and police and tow trucks were busy responding to fender-benders and spinouts Friday morning.
Chicago's more than 280 snowplows were busy salting and clearing the city's streets. Commuters had to slog through slush to get to their offices, some schools closed or were opening late, and a few minor traffic accidents were reported, but the storm didn't appear to cause any major problems.
About 270 flights in and out of Chicago's two airports were canceled Friday morning, and inbound flights were being held up by an average of 90 minutes due to the snow and ice, according to the airline tracking website FlightAware.com.
As the storm moved northward and eastward out of the Plains, it left behind some impressive snow totals, including 13 inches in northern Oklahoma, 10 inches near Kansas City, Mo., and 17 inches in Hays, Kansas. In Topeka, Kan., 3 inches of snow fell in only 30 minutes on Thursday, leaving medical center worker Jennifer Carlock dreading her drive home.
"It came on fast," Carlock said as she shoveled around her car late Thursday. "We're going to test out traction control on the way home."
Numerous accidents and two deaths were being blamed on the icy, slushy roadways. A medical helicopter crashed early Friday in Oklahoma City, two people onboard and injuring a third. It wasn't immediately clear if weather factored into the crash. The National Weather Service says conditions were clear and it was 20 degrees when the crash happened.
State legislatures shut down in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Most schools were closed in Kansas and Missouri, and many in neighboring states.
That included the University of Missouri, where classes were canceled for one of the few times in its 174-year history. At a nearby WalMart, students made a beeline for 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.
All flights at Kansas City International Airport were canceled for Thursday night, and officials said they'd prepare to reopen Friday morning. On the other side of the state in St. Louis, more than 320 flights at Lambert Airport were canceled.
Transportation officials in the affected states urged people to 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. The Kansas National Guard had 12 teams patrolling three state highways in Humvees to rescue motorists stranded by the storm.
For those who needed to drive, it's wasn't a fun commute.
Richard Monroe, a technology manager and marketing representative for the Missouri State University bookstore, said he arrived with eight of his colleagues in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday for a conference. He said a shuttle bus taking them on what should have been a five-minute trip got stuck in the snow, 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," the 27-year-old said.
Others people came down with cabin fever, including Jennifer McCoy of Wichita, Kan. She loaded her nine children — ages 6 months to 16 years — into a van for lunch at Applebee's.
"I was going crazy, they were so whiny," McCoy said.
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 were gone by 4 p.m., with "only two customers are in the entire store."
The storm brought some relief to a region that has been dealing with its 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 in Illinois, 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, noting that last year, "the corn was just a disaster."
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. Arkansas saw a mix of precipitation — a combination of hail, sleet and freezing rain in some place, 6 inches of snow in others.