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Fierce winter storm hits Midwest with snow, wind

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DES MOINES, Iowa — A fierce winter storm hammered more than a dozen states Tuesday with dangerous ice, heavy snow and vicious winds that threatened to create 15-foot drifts in parts of the Upper Midwest.

As much as two-thirds of the country will be affected by the storm by the time it moves off the Maine coast Thursday night, said Jim Lee, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Des Moines.

"It's a monster of a storm," Lee said.

After drenching California with rain and blanketing the mountain West, the storm was expected to bring significant snowfall and blizzard conditions from Utah to the Great Lakes. Wind advisories and warnings were in effect from New Mexico to the Mid-Atlantic states with flooding in the south. Winter storm warnings were likely to be issued in New England by Wednesday.

A foot or more of snow was expected in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, meteorologists said. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph could create snow drifts of 8 to 15 feet.

"It's beautiful – it feels like we moved into the next season," said Ann Marks, a mother of four in Whitefish Bay, Wis., who was buying gloves, hats and scarves. She paused, then added with a smile, "Of course, ask me in a month and it might be a new story."

In rural New York near the Great Lakes where more than 3 feet of snow was expected by the week's end, meteorologists urged residents to deflate blow-up Santas so gusty winds didn't sweep them away.

The storm also brought 100 mph winds to New Mexico, where powerful gusts ripped away the roof of the White Sands Missile Range's police station.

At least five deaths were blamed on the weather, including a hunter in northern Arizona who was killed Monday night when the top of a large pine tree snapped off and crushed him as he slept in a tent and driver whose sport utility vehicle plunged 90 feet off an icy road into the Texas Panhandle's Palo Duro Canyon.

In two Utah counties alone, there were 155 vehicle accidents involving property damage in 14 hours, the Utah Highway Patrol said. Heavy ice forced road closures in Oklahoma and Arizona.

With travel likely to get worse, officials were warning residents in parts of the west and Midwest to stay close to home. Blizzard warnings were issued for most of Iowa as well as eastern Nebraska, northeastern Kansas, southern Minnesota and southern Wisconsin.

Some grade schools closed before the worst of the storm was expected to hit so that buses wouldn't slip on slick roads, while some universities also canceled Wednesday classes and events.

"Anybody traveling tomorrow morning is really taking a huge risk I would say – a risk of being stranded and not having anybody be able to help you for 6 or 12 hours, probably," said Karl Jungbluth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Johnston, Iowa.

Flights were snarled in the Midwest and West. Hundreds of flights were canceled at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago; all departures were canceled out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and only a few were scheduled at Des Moines International Airport. Several flights into and out of Reno-Tahoe International Airport were delayed or canceled.

Subzero temperatures caused a scene out of the movie "A Christmas Story," when a boy got his tongue stuck to a metal fence pole. Firefighters in Boise, Idaho, used a glass of warm water to free the boy, who they said was about 10 years old. Fire Capt. Bill Tinsley says the boy's tongue was bleeding a little, but he was allowed to continue walking to school.

Heavy rain pounded some parts of the South. More than 4 inches were reported in spots in New Orleans, and flooded traffic slowed morning commutes. The storm also produced high winds and a possible tornado near Lake Pontchartrain, the National Weather Service said.

The storm had hit much of the West on Monday with subzero wind chills in Washington state and heavy snow that closed schools and government offices in Reno, Nev. In the Phoenix area, fierce wind brought down power lines, leaving four hospitals temporarily without power and creating wide outages.

Big rigs were left jackknifed across highways in several states.

Officials in northern Arizona closed stretches of Interstate 17 and I-40 for part of the day, saying some areas were snow-packed and visibility levels were near zero. The storm dumped more than 20 inches of snow over Flagstaff, more than four times the record of 5 inches set in 1956.

Cold temperatures also were threatening California crops, where only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the navel and mandarin orange crops have been harvested, said Bob Blakely, director of industrial relations for the California Citrus Mutual.

"We've got a lot on the line," Blakely said. "Both of them combined you're probably looking at over a billion dollars in fruit hanging out there on the trees."

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Associated Press Writers Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, Justin Juozapavicius in Oklahoma City, Kevin McGill in New Orleans, Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz. and Nigel Duara in Iowa City, Iowa contributed to this report.

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