CHICAGO A colossal winter storm stretching from New Mexico to Maine hit the agricultural heartland of the United States with snow and freezing rain on Tuesday, and experts said the worst was still to come as it moved northeast.
The storm, expected to affect as much as a third of the U.S. population, created blizzard conditions from the southern Plains to the upper Midwest, paralyzing grain and livestock movement.
Ice and sleet created dangerous travel conditions and forced the cancellation of thousands of flights.
Moderate to heavy snows of 8 to 15 inches (20 to 38 cm) will blanket the central and northern Midwest, with some places getting 20 inches (51 cm) more. In Chicago, local forecasters expect the city to see a near-record snowfall of up to two feet (61 cm).
In the U.S. Northeast, already facing a wintry mix of snow and sleet, the storm is expected to dump 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) of snow on Boston from Tuesday to Wednesday.
Wall Street financial markets were operating normally on Tuesday morning but officials were making plans for Wednesday, when dangerous icing was possible.
In Washington, D.C., the federal government said that workers could take unscheduled leave or telecommute on Tuesday because of the treacherous travel conditions.
"The largest area of the country we've seen so far this winter will be hit with moderate to heavy snow," said Mike Palmerino, a forecaster with Telvent DTN weather service. "Transportation will be treacherous for the next 48 hours."
The southern half of the United States will miss the snow but parts of it may get hit with freezing rain and ice.
WHEAT, CATTLE THREATENED
The storm is expected to wreak havoc on agricultural operations in the Plains states, threatening the dormant winter wheat crop, cattle herds and grain deliveries.
Key farm states of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri are being hammered by what forecasters said could be a record combination of frigid conditions and snowfall. Between 12 and 24 inches (30 and 60 cm) of snow are forecast in an arc from southeastern Kansas to southern Michigan and northern Ohio.
Grain elevators across the southern Plains were working with limited shifts and icing on Midwest rivers was expected to slow loading of grain barges headed to U.S. Gulf export markets.
Meat processor Cargill Inc [CARG.UL] said it will reduce production at two U.S. Midwest pork plants ahead of the storm.
Chicago soybean futures rose more than 1 percent early on Tuesday, hitting their highest level since July 2008 as the frigid winter storm boosted feed demand.
Freezing temperatures were proving dangerous for Oklahoma's 5.1 million head of cattle, its Department of Agricultural Food and Forestry said. "Hypothermia and dehydration are the two things we worry about," said spokesman Jack Carson.
The Dallas-Fort Worth international airport closed for 2 1/2 hours early on Tuesday due to ice just as thousands of American football fans began arriving in the city for the Super Bowl game on Sunday.
The top U.S. airlines United Continental, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines AMR.N canceled more than 4,000 flights ahead of the storm. Aviation data service Flightaware said more than 6,000 flights have been scrubbed.
The National Weather Service said the ice and sleet could turn into one of the biggest blizzards in more than 40 years in Chicago, with as much as two feet of snow expected. The snow is expected to be accompanied by high winds of more than 40 miles per hour (64 kph) and plunging temperatures.
Chicago faces a blizzard warning through Wednesday afternoon, and many traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange were planning to stay downtown on Tuesday night. A CME Group official said the exchange was monitoring the weather forecasts but had not put any contingency plans in place.
A number of suitcases and overnight bags could be seen among the racks in the coat-room of the largest U.S. futures exchange. Road travel is expected to be treacherous and public transportation subject to delays as snow accumulates quickly.
In New York City, snow, sleet and freezing rain made for a messy, slippery commute. Subways and buses were running but with delays and crowding due to weather-related problems.
"It's far from a picturesque scene. It's an icy, wet mess," said meteorologist John Davitt of NY1 television.
Many in the financial industry took the latest severe weather in stride.
"We have a couple of people working from home who live long distances from the office. Other than that, our office is pretty staffed," said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at RDM Financial in Westport, Connecticut.
"Companies that really will be impacted are companies in rural areas where employees have to drive a significant distance," Sheldon said.
Missouri and Oklahoma were among several states that declared a state of emergency even before the storm hit.
"Everyone should stay inside today and not drive," Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said on local television.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, conditions are so bad that the Tulsa World newspaper will not publish for the first time in its history, said publisher Robert E. Lorton III. Many subscribers couldn't find their Tuesday editions under the snow.
The storm is not expected to hurt first-quarter U.S. economic growth, but is a problem for state and local governments, Moody's Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi said.
It comes at a particularly hard time for them given the budget problems they already face. Storms are expensive to clean up and will create headaches, he told Reuters Insider.
(Additional reporting by Bob Burgdorfer, Christine Stebbins, Ros Krasny, Corrie MacLaggan, Ann Saphir, Carey Gillam, Wendell Marsh, Lauren Keiper, Ellen Wulfhorst and Ed Stoddard; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Walsh)