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Ice storms, heavy snowfall, tornadoes threaten Midwest and South

A San Francisco Department of Public Works worker loaded sandbags into a truck on Tuesday. San Franciscans were preparing for a huge wind and rain storm that is expected to hit on Wednesday.Justin Sullivan/Getty

MCKINNEY, Texas — A pounding stretch of rain, wind, and snow that cut a destructive path through California pushed east toward the Midwest and Southern states Tuesday, bringing heavy rain and snow to much of the central United States while threatening parts of the South with tornadoes, forecasters said.

The so-called multihazard storm was expected to bring freezing rain and snow to a large swath of the country, from the central and northern Plains to the western Great Lakes, while also fueling thunderstorms, tornadoes, and periods of hail across parts of the South.

The severe weather could disrupt travel as many people return from the New Year holiday break, and cause widespread power outages.

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The storms formed from the same “atmospheric river” system that drowned California over the weekend, causing record rainfall and flooding in the Bay Area, before dropping 4 feet of snow on Utah and almost a foot of snow in parts of Arizona. California is still recovering from the mess left over New Year’s weekend, even as forecasters warn that another, possibly larger storm is expected to hit the northern part of the state Wednesday.

Approximately 35 million people could be affected by severe thunderstorms through Tuesday, said Bill Bunting, the chief of forecast operations for the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center. Heavy rain in the South could also cause flash flooding.

People in risk areas should “ensure that they have their severe weather plan in place, including having multiple ways to receive warnings and also an identified safe area in the home, at work, or other locations to seek shelter should a severe storm approach,” Bunting said.

The highest snowfall totals could exceed 12 inches in the northernmost parts of the Midwest, including Minnesota, according to a National Weather Service online forecast discussion, and snowfall Tuesday morning could reach a rate of 1-3 inches per hour. Freezing rain and ice buildup could cause treacherous driving conditions and power outages in Minnesota, the weather service said.

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The Minnesota Department of Transportation encouraged people to avoid travel in more than a dozen counties because of “heavy snowfall and zero visibility.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 100 arriving flights had been canceled at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, according to the airport’s website.

Lake Andes, in southern South Dakota, had received more than 22 inches of snow as of Tuesday morning, the weather service said, as dense fog formed in the northwestern portion of the state.

The system is expected to produce a mixture of snow, rain, and freezing rain in northern New England on Wednesday, forecasters said.

At least five airlines, including American, Jet Blue, and Delta, have announced travel waivers for people planning to fly through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport or the upper Midwest through midweek. Some airlines offered to waive change or cancellation fees.

The potential flight disruptions come after a wave of flight cancellations and delays last week because of winter weather, staff shortages, and, in the case of Southwest Airlines, an unusual operations system and technology problems.

Similar problems could continue. Forecasters said another atmospheric river, or strip of deep tropical moisture with torrential downpours and attendant strong winds, is set to blast the Golden State on Wednesday and Thursday.

The National Weather Service office that serves the Bay Area has adopted an unusually stern tone in warnings about the forthcoming storm, calling it a “truly . . . brutal system . . . that needs to be taken seriously.”

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“This will likely be one of the most impactful systems on a widespread scale that this meteorologist has seen in a long while,” wrote one of the agency’s forecasters. “The impacts will include widespread flooding, roads washing out, hillside collapsing, trees down (potentially full groves), widespread power outages, immediate disruption to commerce and the worst of all, likely loss of human life.”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.