CHICAGO — A sprawling storm blocked highways, closed schools and canceled flights across much of the central United States on Wednesday, with nearly a foot of snow piling up in parts of the Midwest while areas to the south braced for potentially dangerous accumulations of ice.
In central Illinois, where residents are used to snow, bus service was interrupted and officials described it as the worst storm in years. In Indianapolis, where the snow was still hours away, a steady rain made it impossible to treat roads with salt. And in Kansas and Missouri, colleges and Covid-19 testing sites closed as snow piled up.
“The roads are snow-packed, slick and hazardous,” said Gary Lezak, the chief meteorologist at KSHB-TV in Kansas City, Mo., where the worst of the storm had passed by midday. “All it takes is one car to swerve and lose control, and it can cause a chain reaction.”
As disruptive as the snow was, forecasters warned that the worst impacts could still be coming. An icy cocktail of precipitation threatened Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as southern Indiana and Ohio. In many of those places, freezing rain and snow was expected to intensify late Wednesday and into Thursday.
“Everyone is dreading the power going out,” said Chris Gilbert, an employee at an Ace Hardware store in Germantown, Ohio, south of Dayton, where customers were rushing to buy shovels.
More than 2,000 flights were canceled nationwide, according to FlightAware, a tracking website, and Amtrak paused train service across the Midwest and the South. Forecasters warned that ice could soon make travel impossible in the Missouri Bootheel, the southeasternmost part of the state, and that up to an inch of ice could form in Memphis, where falling trees and power outages loomed as a possibility. Other areas of Tennessee braced for the possibility of flooding.
“Any ice around here is uncommon and could cause glazes and road issues,” said Faith Borden, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Nashville. “We are not used to that around here. That could be a problem.”
Around Dallas and Oklahoma City, some schools had called off classes for Thursday and Friday. In New Mexico, some schools and courts closed on Wednesday. And in Arkansas, residents packed grocery stores to stock up on supplies as the governor activated the National Guard, and officials warned that ice could topple trees and power lines.
“When it comes to ice, it’s just a completely different animal,” Dave Parker, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, told local reporters.
In southwestern Ohio, where meteorologists warned of a prolonged transition from rain to snow, followed by gusty winds, residents were bracing for the worst. In New Lebanon, Ohio, Carla Edgington, 60, filled her grocery cart with essentials like cereal and potatoes.
“I want things you can eat if the power goes out,” said Ms. Edgington, who feared that the ice could bring down power lines.
In Texas, where snow was accumulating in the Panhandle and sleet and freezing rain were already falling southeast of Lubbock, some residents feared a repeat of a storm last winter that knocked out power for days in some areas. Though forecasters warned of heavy snow in West Texas and significant icing around Dallas, the prospect of above-freezing weather by the weekend lessened some fears.
“It’s really the duration that is not comparable to last year,” said William Iwasko, a Weather Service meteorologist. “We had those freezing temperatures for over a week.”
In the Midwest, where severe winter weather is more routine, problems were still mounting. Semi-trucks and other large vehicles were banned from the Ohio Turnpike until midday Friday. In Missouri, a crash on Interstate 70 in Columbia blocked westbound traffic for a time. And in Illinois, blowing snow limited visibility to a quarter-mile or less in some areas.
“It’s not worth the risk to attempt to travel in these conditions,” the city of Peoria, Ill., posted on Twitter. “When you get stuck, you put yourself in danger, you risk waiting for a tow, and you make it hard for plows and emergency vehicles to do their jobs.”
In eastern Kansas, Mark Nelson said he welcomed the snowfall as much-needed moisture for the dry soils and depleted ponds on his farm. But he was keeping a close eye on his cattle, especially because dozens of them were expected to give birth in the coming days. Mr. Nelson checked on the animals several times overnight, and was hauling bedding out to his snowy pasture Wednesday morning.
“If you can keep them out of the direct wind and they’ve got something to eat, they’ll be all right,” Mr. Nelson said.
Reporting was contributed by Eric Berger in St. Louis, Ben Fenwick in Oklahoma City, Carey Gillam in Overland Park, Kan., Lucinda Holt in Lubbock, Texas, Amy Lynch in Indianapolis, Jamie McGee in Nashville, Daniel McGraw in Cleveland, Simon Romero in Albuquerque, Bret Schulte in Fayetteville, Ark., Marina Trahan Martinez in Dallas and Kevin Williams in New Lebanon, Ohio. Derrick Bryson Taylor, Jesus Jiménez and Azi Paybarah also contributed reporting.