The Associated Press . Freeport, Ill. residents shovel around a foot of snow on State Ave. Wednesday in Freeport, Ill.
DES MOINES, Iowa -- A fierce storm left dangerous ice, heavy snow and vicious winds in its wake as it slogged eastward Wednesday, snarling traffic and closing hundreds of schools from the Upper Midwest through New England.
More than a foot of snow was expected in parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, where the National Weather Service warned of ''extremely dangerous blizzard conditions'' and near whiteout driving conditions. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph could build snow drifts between 8 and 15 feet tall. Parts of New England also girded themselves for bone-chilling wind gusts and snow accumulations of up to a foot.
The storm was blamed for at least 12 deaths, most in traffic accidents.
''It's horrible out there,'' said Todd Lane, an assistant manager of a Quik Trip convenience store in Des Moines, where about 6 inches of new snow was reported overnight. Plow drivers came into the store all night seeking energy drinks and coffee to keep them alert.
Motorists got stuck on drift-blocked highways all over Iowa. State troopers were dispatched with National Guard soldiers in Humvees.
''They're not even plowing the streets anymore because the wind will just blow it back down and cover it,'' said Dan Hansen, a carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Iowa City. He was bundled up in hand and feet warmers, snow boots and a parka to brave his route. ''It'll get worse before it gets better.''
High winds knocked down the two-story Christmas tree that, until Wednesday morning, stood in the center of downtown Champaign, Ill.
With classes canceled and more than a foot of snow on the ground, University of Wisconsin-Madison students planned to try again to hold the world's largest snowball fight on Wednesday. An attempt in January to break the record -- 3,700 people who hurled snowballs at Michigan Technological University in 2006, according to the Guinness Book of World Records -- fell far short.
The storm felt like a rude surprise after an unseasonably warm and dry November in parts of the region. The massive system is the first major blast of winter weather for many parts of the Midwest.
''I've been dreading this day,'' said Kim Brust, shoveling the sidewalk in front of his Minneapolis home before sunrise Wednesday. ''I was starting to enjoy the global warming.''
Hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, and only a few were scheduled at Des Moines International Airport. Travelers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were experiencing long delays.
Blizzard warnings also covered eastern Nebraska, where overnight snowfall reports of 12 inches were common, and parts of Kansas, Illinois and Minnesota. Snow also fell in western and central Michigan. Thousands of power outages were reported in Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, New York and New Jersey.
By the time the storm moves off the Maine coast tonight, it may have affected as much as two-thirds of the country, said Jim Lee, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.