DENVER (AP) -- A powerful winter storm blanketed the Rocky Mountains with several inches of snow overnight, forcing the cancellation of more than 200 flights in Denver and setting up what could be a dicey Tuesday morning commute in some areas.
Forecasters said 6 to 10 inches of snow could fall in Denver before the storm pushes east into Kansas later Tuesday. The worst conditions were expected in areas south and east of the city and on the Eastern Plains.
"After the storm lingers on through the morning rush, it will be moving out of the area," said Todd Dankers, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder. "The rush hour will be the tail end of the storm."
But Dankers said that even when the snow tapers off, sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph, with gusts of up to 50 mph, could create bitterly cold and dangerous conditions.
"It's possible that fresh snow will be blowing around, creating the possibility of a ground blizzard," he said.
That's of particular concern for officials at Denver International Airport, which sits on the flatlands east of the city.
Airport spokesman Heath Montgomery said about 220 flights were canceled Monday in advance of the storm, which is expected to drop 12 to 16 inches by lunchtime Tuesday. The airport typically has about 1,500 flights a day.
"Delays are also going to be possible if the FAA slows traffic into Denver," Montgomery said.
The storm that originated in the Gulf of Alaska could be a harbinger of El Nino, the ocean-warming phenomenon that's predicted to bring heavy rain to the West in the coming months, said Kathy Hoxsie of the National Weather Service.
"It's the beginning of the winter season," she said. "We want storms. We want rain. We've been projecting that we're going to have a wet winter and this is a sign that it's going to happen."
California in particular is anxiously awaiting winter rains as it seeks relief from its record, four-year drought. Heavy rain will bring some drought relief, but it is not expected to erase the state's water deficit.
In Central California, a twister Sunday swept through the small town of Denair near Modesto, damaging 21 homes, including one that shifted on its foundation. The tornado toppled trees and fences, broke windows and ripped off part of a church roof.
Wind speeds exceeded 110 mph, said Eric Kurth of the National Weather Service in Sacramento. There were no reports of injuries.
Sabina Woodard said she took refuge with her husband under a hospital bed in their home as their television set and furnishings flew about.
"What I thought was a bunch of birds was a bunch of debris" being carried by the funnel cloud heading their way, she told the Modesto Bee (http://bit.ly/…). "It looked like a remake of that Alfred Hitchcock movie 'The Birds.'"
Thunderstorms brought hail to parts of Northern California and Sierra Nevada foothills. Rain and strong wind hit the San Francisco Bay Area, and wetter, windier weather is forecast in the days ahead across the Pacific Northwest.
The National Weather Service in Seattle said the harsher weather will likely begin on Tuesday and last into Thursday. The conditions prompted several ski resorts to set their openings.