A woman is out for a run in Madison, Wis., which has see the greatest snowfall… (Andy Manis / Getty Images )
Reporting from Fort Wayne, Ind. — A fierce storm ripped across the Midwest on Wednesday, stranding travelers, closing hundreds of schools and cutting off power to thousands of people across the country's heartland.
The National Weather Service warned residents in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan of "extremely dangerous blizzard conditions" with near whiteout driving conditions.
"This is a very big and very fast-moving storm," said Jack Hales, a lead forecaster at the National Weather Service's storm prediction center in Norman, Okla.
The storm system also engulfed parts of New England on Wednesday, cutting off power to 14,000 customers in Vermont and blanketing the region in snow, ice and rain.
So far, 12 people have been killed, most in traffic accidents, according to the Associated Press.
As the storm continued eastward, weather forecasters predicted that it could bring winds of at least 60 mph to the coast of Maine and up to 3 feet of snow to parts of New York in the coming days.
Forecasters in some areas were measuring the snow drifts in feet. Madison, Wis., which saw the greatest snowfall in the Midwest, has recorded 18.5 inches of snow this week and drifts as high as 15 feet.
Similar snowy mounds blanketed Albany, Wis. (18 inches of snow); Middleton, Wis. (17 inches); Atlantic, Iowa (16 inches); Winterset, Iowa (15 inches); Freeport, Ill. (15 inches); and Rockport, Mo. (12.5 inches).
Adding to these weather woes were ferocious winds and sub-freezing temperatures. In hard-hit Iowa, where gusts reached 50 mph, the wind chill dropped to as low as minus 30 degrees. Fort Wayne, Ind., saw gusts of more than 60 mph, and the wind chill was expected to drop to minus 8 degrees.
The storm led to treacherous road conditions. The Iowa National Guard rolled out Humvees and nearly four dozen guardsmen to help the State Patrol haul more than 200 stranded motorists out of roadside ditches and empty corn fields.
"This storm is a minute-by-minute event," said Courtney Greene, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety. "We're telling people, if you don't have to go to work, don't. Being on the road is putting other people and yourself at risk."
To the east, at least 200 flights were canceled at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, and hundreds more were delayed for hours. That caused a ripple effect across the country, forcing passengers in even comfortably sunny south Florida to have lengthy waits.
"This storm system is affecting the whole country, in one way or the other," Hales said.
Across the Chicago area, residents slogged through slow commutes and slippery roads. Amy Kaspar, a motivational speaker, left a meeting near O'Hare airport at 3 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. hockey game across town -- a drive that would normally take less than an hour. When she walked outside, the roads were covered in a thick blanket of icy sludge.
But the Chicago native was prepared. "I carry a shovel in my car, because when I spend long periods of time indoors, there's a good chance when I go outside I'll have to dig my car out," said Kaspar, 34.
In Minnesota, truck stops and gas stations were packed with idling tractor-trailers and frustrated drivers after state officials advised a halt to all travel through the southern part of the state.
Whiteout conditions in Wisconsin prompted Gov. Jim Doyle to declare a state of emergency and close all state offices.
Classes at all University of Wisconsin campuses were canceled. Students at the snow-covered campus in Madison and locals raced to grab last-minute supplies.
"I kept thinking, 'What if I lost power?' " said Scott Becher, 42, who stocked up on canned goods, bread and lunch meat. "You have to be prepared."
Some students took advantage of the wintry weather at the Madison campus, which canceled classes because of snow for the first time in 19 years: They held a massive snowball fight.
About 3,500 students reportedly showed up for a 90-minute melee in an attempt to break the Guinness world record for the largest snowball fight.
They fell just short, missing it by 200 people.