ST. LOUIS (AP) — As a monster storm began to bear down on the middle of the nation Tuesday, Midwesterners could only hope it wouldn't live up to the hype.

Early indications, though, were ominous. By dawn, freezing rain and sleet were already pelting several states from Texas through Ohio. Halfway, Mo., near Springfield, reported 3 inches of snow in the first two hours that it fell. Sheboygan, Wis., already had a half-foot of snow. Ice downed power lines in Ohio, leaving 14,000 without electricity.

Forecasters predicted a hodge-podge of brutal winter weather over a third of the country — 2 feet of snow in some places, up to an inch of ice plus snow in others. Making matters far worse was the expectation of brutal cold and winds gusting to near 60 mph.

"What really gives us nightmares is the prospect of widespread power outages," said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. "It's cross-our-fingers time."

Storm predictions were so dire that public officials, street crews and utility workers have been in place since Monday in anticipation of the worst. The St. Louis-based utility company AmerenUE had nearly 500 of its own linemen ready to go and was bringing in another 800 from as far away as Michigan. Massive amounts of ice predicted south of St. Louis, followed by strong winds, could cause a repeat of 2006, when the ice knocked out power in parts of Missouri for weeks.

Hardware stores were selling out of snow shovels, backup generators and ice-melting salt. Grocery stores doing all they could to keep supplied with the staples.

"Milk, bread, toilet paper, beer," said Todd Vasel of the St. Louis-based grocery chain Dierbergs, who said pre-storm crowds were more than double the norm. "It's been the equivalent of Christmas Eve, which is normally one of our biggest days of the year."

The storm brought the potential for some strange happenings — thundersnow, lightning, even tornadoes. Forecasters said some regions could get up to 2 inches of snow per hour through parts of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Blizzard warnings were in effect in much of the Midwest. Kansas City, St. Louis and Milwaukee all seemed in line for a foot of snow or more. Even Chicago, where snow is common, could be in for its third-worst blizzard since record-keeping began, with up to 20 inches forecast.

After burying the Midwest, the storm was expected to sweep into the Northeast, parts of which already are on track for record snowfall this winter. A winter storm warning was in effect for New York City, with forecasters predicting a mix of snow, sleet and ice. Federal workers in Washington were given the option of working from home because roads on Tuesday were already slippery.

When the snow finally ends, bitter cold will set in. Temperatures in some parts of the Midwest will dip well below zero. Gusty winds will blow all of that snow. Visibility will be virtually zero at times.

In Chicago, the National Weather Service warned that high winds with gusts of up to 60 mph could produce waves on Lake Michigan of up to 25 feet, leading to considerable coastal flooding and freezing spray, particularly along the main city thoroughfare of Lake Shore Drive.

School districts, universities and legislatures closed; airlines canceled thousands of flights. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport closed due to an ice storm.

Governors in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois declared emergencies, even as the storm was just arriving. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon activated 600 members of the National Guard.

Warming centers were set up around Missouri in anticipation of power outages. St. Louis officials were proactively calling needy residents to check on their well-being and set up extra beds for the homeless.

The Illinois Legislature canceled sessions for the entire week because of expected travel problems.

Drivers were already sliding off slick roads even before the worst of the storm had arrived, with deadly accidents reported in Minnesota and Kansas.

It wasn't just people getting ready for the weather. The Humane Society of Missouri urged people to bring pets inside. Farmers and ranchers prepared livestock.

Kevin Hafner, who works for Express Ranches' operation in El Reno, Okla., said workers prepared enough feed to last their animals for 48 hours. Workers were preparing to chop ice on ponds so the cattle will have adequate water.

"They are tough enough to handle it," Hafner said of the cattle. "They've got a good hair coat this year, but we have to have enough feed to give them energy to keep going."

With the storm expected to affect a huge swath of the country, the National Weather Service suggested any Green Bay Packers fans planning to drive from Wisconsin to Dallas for the Super Bowl avoid leaving before Wednesday afternoon, when authorities hope to have cleaned up the worst of the mess along the route.

"As long as I have 18 hours, I'm going to get there," said 68-year-old Don Zuidmulder, who planned to fly out on Thursday. "I'll crawl if I have to."

If the forecasts for Chicago hold true, it would be the city's third-biggest snowstorm, overshadowed only by the 21.6 inches in 1999 and the mother of all Chicago snowstorms, the 23 inches of snow that fell in 1967.