- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A powerful winter storm system that pounded the nation’s midsection is headed toward the Northeast, wrecking travel plans and knocking out power to thousands of homes.

At least six deaths are being blamed on the storm, which spawned Gulf Coast region tornadoes on Christmas Day and a historic amount of snow in Arkansas before pushing through the Upper Ohio Valley and heading toward the Northeast on Wednesday.

The aviation-tracking website FlightAware.com said that more than 1,400 flights had been canceled. The New York City area’s three major airports were experiencing hourlong delays.

Scores of motorists got stuck on icy roads or slid into drifts, and blizzard warnings were issued amid snowy gusts of 30 mph that blanketed roads and windshields, at times causing whiteout conditions.

“The way I’ve been describing it is as a low-end blizzard, but that’s sort of like saying a small Tyrannosaurus rex,” said John Kwiatkowski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis.

Forecasts called for 12 to 18 inches of snow inland from western New York to Maine starting late Wednesday and into Thursday and tapering off into a mix of rain and snow closer to the coast, where little accumulation was expected in such cities as New York and Boston.

The storm left freezing temperatures in its aftermath, and forecasters also said parts of the Southeast from Virginia to Florida would see severe thunderstorms.

Schools on break and workers taking holiday vacations meant that many people could avoid messy commutes, but those who had to travel were implored to avoid it. Snow was blamed for scores of vehicle accidents as far east as Maryland, and about two dozen counties in Indiana and Ohio issued snow emergency travel alerts, urging people to go out on the roads only if necessary.

Some 40 vehicles got bogged down trying to make it up a slick hill in central Indiana, and four state snowplows slid off roads as snow fell at the rate of 3 inches an hour in some places.

Two passengers in a car on a sleet-slickened Arkansas highway were killed Wednesday in a head-on collision, and two people, including a 76-year-old Milwaukee woman, were killed Tuesday on Oklahoma highways. Deaths from wind-toppled trees were reported in Texas and Louisiana.

The day after a holiday wasn’t expected to be particularly busy for AAA, but its Cincinnati-area branch had its busiest Wednesday of the year. By midafternoon, nearly 400 members had been helped with tows, jump-starts and other aid, with calls still coming in, spokesman Mike Mills said.

Jennifer Miller, 58, was taking a bus Wednesday from Cincinnati to visit family in Columbus, Ohio.

“I wish this had come yesterday and was gone today,” she said, struggling with a rolling suitcase and three smaller bags on a slushy sidewalk near the station. “I’m glad I don’t have to drive in this.”

As usual, winter-sports enthusiasts welcomed the snow. At Smiling Hill Farm in Maine, Warren Knight was hoping for enough snow to allow the opening of trails.

“We watch the weather more carefully for cross-country skiing than we do for farming. And we’re pretty diligent about farming,” he said.