By Mary Wisniewski
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 10:01 PM
CHICAGO - A colossal winter storm stretching from New Mexico to Maine hit the United States with snow, high winds and freezing rain Tuesday, and experts said the worst was still to come as the monster event moved northeast and temperatures plunged.
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 operations and threatening near-record snowfall.
Ice and sleet created dangerous travel conditions and forced the cancellation of thousands of flights.
President Obama was briefed on the storm and preparations for emergency relief. The National Weather Service issued storm watches, warnings and advisories in more than 30 states, and blizzard warnings for eight: Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. States of emergency were declared in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma.
Moderate to heavy snowfalls of eight to 15 inches were expected to blanket the central and northern Midwest, with some places getting 20 inches or more. In Chicago, forecasts called for accumulations of up to two feet .
The Northeast was facing a wintry mix of snow and sleet, and the storm threatened to dump 12 to 18 inches of snow on Boston from Tuesday to Wednesday.
Wall Street financial markets were operating normally Tuesday, but officials were making plans for Wednesday, when dangerous icing was possible.
The southern half of the United States will escape the snow, but parts may get hit with freezing rain and ice.
Eleven states, from Oklahoma to Rhode Island, have accepted the Federal Emergency Management Agency's offer to deploy personnel as needed, and the agency has prepositioned items such as meals, blankets and generators for rapid delivery if needed.
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.
The farm states of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri were being hammered by what forecasters said could be a severe combination of frigid conditions and snowfall. Between 12 and 24 inches 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 said it would reduce production at two Midwest pork plants ahead of the storm.
Chicago soybean futures rose more than 1 percent early Tuesday, hitting their highest level since July 2008 as the storm boosted feed demand.
Freezing temperatures were proving dangerous for Oklahoma's 5.1 million head of cattle, the state's Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry said. "Hypothermia and dehydration are the two things we worry about," spokesman Jack Carson said.
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport closed 21/2 hours early Tuesday because of ice, just as thousands of American football fans began arriving for the Super Bowl game Sunday. Ice made main roads in the area almost impassable.
Top U.S. airlines - United Continental, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines - had canceled more than 5,400 flights by Tuesday afternoon. FlightAware.com, a Web site that tracks flights, estimated that total cancellations exceeded 6,200.
Chicago faces a blizzard warning through Wednesday afternoon. Many traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange were planning to stay downtown Tuesday night. An official said the exchange was monitoring the weather forecasts but had not put any contingency plans in place.
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 because of weather-related problems.
"It's far from a picturesque scene. It's an icy, wet mess," said meteorologist John Davitt of NY1 television.
Many people in the financial industry took the latest bout of 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, Conn.
"Companies that really will be impacted are companies in rural areas where employees have to drive a significant distance," Sheldon said.
States of emergency have been declared in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma.