(Updates with storm moving into Midwest, details)
By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Mo. Feb 21 A major winter storm moved into the U.S. Midwest on Thursday, blanketing states from Minnesota to Ohio with a mix of blinding snow, sleet and freezing rain.
The same storm dumped more than a foot of snow in Kansas, stranded motorists on highways and forced airports to cancel hundreds of flights.
The storm is expected to eventually reach the East Coast this weekend, delivering heavy snow to parts of New England for a third straight weekend, from northern Connecticut to southern Maine.
Kansas bore the brunt of the storm, with up to 15 inches (38 cm) of snow in some parts of the state, according to the National Weather Service. A 200-mile (323-km) stretch of Interstate 70 in central Kansas was closed and strewn with cars stuck in snow.
National Guard troops riding in Humvees were dispatched to look for stranded motorists along the interstate and other highways, said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for Kansas emergency management services.
The fierce storm triggered severe thunderstorms from eastern Texas to Georgia.
Thunder accompanied snow in Kansas City, hit by 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour on Thursday morning.
"When there is thunder and lightning, it's a pretty screaming clue that you are going to have massive snowfall," said Andy Bailey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, Missouri.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback declared states of emergency because of hazardous travel and possible power outages. Brownback ordered state offices closed because of the storm.
STORM BRINGS SOME DROUGHT RELIEF
Kansas City International Airport was closed on Thursday while crews cleared runways. It was unclear when the airport would reopen, spokesman Joe McBride said.
At the Denver International Airport, some 55 commuter flights were canceled overnight, spokeswoman Laura Coale said. More than 320 flights in and out of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport were scrapped and nearly 50 flights in and out of Omaha's Eppley Airfield were listed as canceled by midday.
In Nebraska, a 19-year-old woman was killed in a two-car accident on Wednesday on Interstate 80 near Giltner. The Nebraska State Patrol said weather was a factor.
An 18-year-old man died in Oklahoma when his vehicle slid into a semi-truck on a slushy state highway, the state's highway patrol said.
Drought-stricken farmers in the Great Plains, one of the world's largest wheat-growing areas, welcomed the moisture brought by the storm, although experts said more rain or snow would be needed to ensure healthy crops.
"It's a travel nightmare, but all I hear are good things from farmers about how much this moisture is needed," said meteorologist Jeff Johnson of the National Weather Service in Dodge City, Kansas. (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, Ben Berkowitz, Keith Coffman in Denver, Suzi Parker in Little Rock, Kay Henderson in Des Moines, Steve Olafson in Oklahoma City and Tim Bross in St. Louis; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Kevin Gray and Lisa Shumaker)