A powerful winter storm system pounded the American heartland before barrelling into the Northeast, where residents faced high winds and heavy snow that disrupted holiday travel, knocked out power to thousands of homes and were blamed in at least six deaths.

More than 1,600 flights were cancelled or delayed on Wednesday, scores of motorists got stuck on icy roads or slid into drifts, and blizzard warnings were issued amid snowy gusts of 30 mph (48 kph) that blanketed roads and windshields, at times causing whiteout conditions.

The system, which spawned Gulf Coast region tornadoes on Christmas Day and a historic amount of snow in Arkansas, pushed through the Upper Ohio Valley and moved into the Northeast. Forecasts called for 12 inches to 18 inches (300 to 457 millimetres) 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.

By Wednesday night, The National Weather Service said spotters had reported up to a foot (30 centimetres) of snow in some Pennsylvania counties. And a mix of snow, sleet and rain accompanied by high winds had arrived in western Massachusetts.

“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.

Two passengers in a car on a sleet-slickened Arkansas highway died when the vehicle crossed the center line and struck a sport utility vehicle.

In Oklahoma, the Highway Patrol said a 76-year-old woman died Tuesday when a truck crossed into oncoming traffic and hit the car she was in. The Highway Patrol earlier reported that a 28-year-old woman was killed in another crash.

The storm’s winds were also blamed on Tuesday for toppling a tree onto a truck in Texas, killing the driver, and a tree onto a house in Louisiana, killing a man.

About 1,400 flights nationwide had been cancelled by near midday on Wednesday, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.com. More cancelations were likely, with Washington, New York and Philadelphia expected to see the most problems.

Thirty-four tornadoes were reported in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama during Tuesday’s outbreak, the National Weather Service said. The storms left more than 100,000 in the region without power for a while, darkening Christmas celebrations.

Camera footage captured the approach of the large funnel cloud in Mobile, Alabama, the biggest city hit by numerous twisters.

A large section of the roof on the city’s Trinity Episcopal Church was missing, said Scott Rye, a senior warden at the church.

On Christmas Eve, the church with about 500 members was crowded for services.

“Thank God this didn’t happen last night,” Rye said.

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