A major weekend storm could give new meaning to March Madness for the thousands of fans in Kansas City for the men's college basketball tournament, blanketing northern areas of the nation's heartland in up to a foot of snow and bringing downpours and possibly, tornadoes, to parts of the South.
Forecasters said Friday that the storm expected to come down from the Rocky Mountains could dump 8 or more inches of snow on Kansas City and could also blanket Indianapolis, Omaha, Neb., and Springfield, Ill. More snow is expected to hit parts of the Northeast early next week, and the cold air may stick around for even longer.
"Baseball season's about to start. Let's hope this is it," said John Hart, a meteorologist with Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
Farther south, tornadoes are possible in Louisiana and Mississippi as the storm system moves east, while strong winds and low humidity levels could lead to forest fires and wildfires in parts of New Mexico and west Texas.
The new system could pose headaches in winter-weary Kansas City over the Palm Sunday weekend because of the thousands of people in town for the college basketball tournament at the Sprint Center. But a spokesman for Kansas City's public works department said it has more than enough resources to handle whatever the new storm brings.
"We are ahead of the game," spokesman Sean Demory said. "We have more than $1 million left in our snow budget, 17,000 tons of salt, and our crews are set for 24-hour activity on arterials and at least 12 hours a day on residential streets."
After two mild winters, this will be the third major snowstorm in about a month for the Midwest. Weather Service meteorologist Chris Bowman in Pleasant Hill said this weekend's storm will be similar to one in late February that brought white-out conditions, dumped more than a foot of snow in some areas, and forced the cancellation of several flights in and out of Kansas City International Airport.
"We're going to have a pretty major late winter-early spring snowstorm," Bowman said. "Right now, with the models trickling in, my preliminary thinking is a good swath of 8 to 12 inches of snow will fall along the I-70 corridor."
He said Kansas City will get rain Saturday afternoon, then snow in the early evening that will likely continue until around noon on Sunday.
Only last week, some areas enjoyed record high temperatures in the 80s for a March 15 that seemed to signal the end of a winter that saved its worst for last, with two major snowstorms in late February.
"It's fairly rare to get this powerful of a system this late in the year with the potential to drop that much snowfall," Bowman said.
Weather Service meteorologist Vanessa Pearce in Wichita, Kan., said the storm system will start moving into northwest Kansas on Friday night and march eastward on Saturday. The state's highest predicted snowfall is expected along the Colorado border, where a foot or more could fall.
Goodland is expected to get 12 inches of snow in northwest Kansas, while Wichita was expecting 2 to 5 inches and Topeka was forecast to get about 6 inches, she said.
The storm will start with rain before turning entirely to snow, accompanied by strong winds that could hamper visibility and create some drifting, Pearce said.
"A rain or snow mix could create a little bit of a challenge and hazardous driving potential," she said. "But for the most part, it's going to be just snow once major precipitation gets to some of those areas."
Pearce said Wichita has had 24.5 inches of snow since Jan. 1, more than 10 inches above normal, while Topeka has seen about 7 inches more than normal. In northwest Kansas, the nearly 28 inches so far this winter is about normal, but the additional foot expected on Saturday will push that well above average, she said.