CHICAGO (Reuters) - A powerful winter storm that buried the U.S. Plains and left at least three people dead moved into the southern Great Lakes region on Tuesday, where it snarled the evening commute in Chicago and Milwaukee, created near-whiteout conditions in some areas and forced hundreds of flight cancellations.
Much of the region was under either a winter storm warning or a winter weather advisory, according to the National Weather Service, as the system's potent blend of wet snow, sleet and strong winds bore down on north central Illinois, southern Wisconsin and northern Indiana and Ohio.
The most intense snowfall and greatest accumulations were expected through Tuesday night, the NWS said. With winds gusting up to 35 mph, near-whiteout conditions were reported in some rural areas, the agency said.
More than 500 flights were canceled at Chicago's O'Hare International and Midway airports alone, 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, had its fleet of more than 180 snowplows working 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.
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.
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.
The storm contributed to at least three deaths, two in Kansas and one in Oklahoma.
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.
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 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 and James B. Kelleher in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Barbara Goldberg, Nick Zieminski, Dan Grebler and Phil Berlowitz