By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A powerful winter storm that buried the U.S. Plains moved on Tuesday into the southern Great Lakes region, where it snarled the evening commute in Chicago and Milwaukee, created near-whiteout conditions and forced hundreds of flight cancellations.
Wind gusts of up to 35 miles per hour (56 km per hour) hurled a potent blend of wet snow and sleet on north-central Illinois, southern Wisconsin and northern Indiana and Ohio, according to the National Weather Service.
More than 500 flights were canceled at Chicago's O'Hare International and Midway airports, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Those flights that managed to take off or land faced delays of up to an hour.
The Illinois Tollway agency, which maintains nearly 300 miles of highway around Chicago, deployed its fleet of more than 180 snowplows to keep the roads clear.
As the afternoon rush hour began in Chicago, blowing snow reduced visibility and created treacherous driving conditions, doubling average travel times in and out of the city on major expressways, according to Traffic.com.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation warned that much of Interstate 94 between the Illinois state line and Milwaukee was ice covered.
In Chicago, the city's public school system, the third-largest school district in the country, canceled all after-school sporting events, including six state regional basketball games.
The snowstorm may have discouraged some voters in Chicago and its suburbs from voting in a special election primary to replace indicted Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned the seat in November citing health concerns.
Forecasters with the National Weather Service said the storm would continue to move eastward, dumping 3 to 5 inches of wet snow on Detroit overnight and into Wednesday morning.
It is then expected to move slowly into the Northeast, largely avoiding the cities of New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., but bringing snow to parts of New York state, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, said Brian Korty, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
"It's going to linger for a long time over portions of the Northeast," Korty said.
'POTPOURRI OF WINTRY WEATHER'
Parts of New York and Pennsylvania could get a "sloppy mix" of snow, ice and rain. Already, ice accumulations were causing sporadic power outages across higher terrains of western Maryland, eastern West Virginia and far western Virginia, said Erik Pindrock, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.
"It's a very multi-faceted storm," Pindrock said. "It's a whole potpourri of wintry weather."
In Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, where the storm hit earlier, residents were digging out.
Highways in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and parts of Kansas remained closed because of heavy and drifting snow.
Amarillo, Texas, saw 19 inches of snow Sunday night into Monday, the third-largest snowfall ever in that city, Pindrock said.
In Kansas, a woman died and three passengers were injured Monday night on Interstate 70 when their pickup truck rolled off the icy roadway in Ellis County, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback said. Earlier Monday, a man was killed when his car veered off the interstate in Sherman County near the Colorado border, he said.
"We urge everyone to avoid travel and be extremely cautious if you must be on the roads," said Ernest Garcia, superintendent of the Kansas Highway Patrol.
A 58-year-old man and his 69-year-old sister died from carbon monoxide poisoning in Kansas City, Kansas, from a gas generator being used in their home because they lost power Tuesday in the snowstorm, said Deputy Fire Chief Craig Duke.
In northern Oklahoma, one person died when the roof of a home partially collapsed in the city of Woodward, said Matt Lehenbauer, the city's emergency management director.
"We have roofs collapsing all over town," said Woodward Mayor Roscoe Hill Jr. "We really have a mess on our hands."
Kansas City, Missouri, was also hard hit by the storm, which left snowfalls of 7 to 13 inches in the metro region on Tuesday, said Chris Bowman, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. Another 1 to 3 inches is forecast for Tuesday evening and nearly two-thirds of the flights at Kansas City International Airport Tuesday afternoon were canceled.
In addition to the winter storm, National Weather Service forecasters on Tuesday issued tornado watches across central Florida and up the eastern coast to South Carolina.
(Reporting by Kevin Murphy in Missouri, David Bailey in Minneapolis, James B. Kelleher in Chicago and Corrie MacLaggan in Texas; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Barbara Goldberg, Nick Zieminski, Dan Grebler, Phil Berlowitz, Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker)