Little Rock, Arkansas - Tree limbs snapped with a sound like gunshots, blacking out thousands of homes and businesses, and schools and government offices were closed Tuesday as a major storm spread a glaze of ice and snow from the southern Plains to the East Coast.

At least 15 deaths had been blamed on the weather.

Highway crews fought to keep up with slippery roads and in some places were blocked by fallen tree limbs and power lines. Ice had built up 3 inches thick in sections of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The National Weather Service posted ice storm and winter storm warnings Tuesday along a broad swath from Texas and Oklahoma through the Mississippi and Ohio valleys all the way into northern New England. Radar showed smears of snow and freezing rain stretching from Texas to Pennsylvania during the evening.

Broken tree limbs weighted down by ice crashed onto power lines, cutting service to at least 165,000 homes and businesses in hard-hit Arkansas, utilities said.

"I think we are about to go over the cliff," said Mel Coleman, CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative in Salem.

Arkansas utilities warned customers that their power could be out for at least three days.

"We fully expect this to be one of the largest outages we've ever had," said Coleman. "Right now, we're just hoping it's days and not weeks."

Kentucky state officials reported more than 80,000 customers with no electricity as ice up to 1.5 inches thick broke tree limbs.

"You hear the popping - it sounded like gunfire - and it's limbs from trees breaking," said Hopkins County, Ky., Judge-Executive Donald Carroll, who was among those with no power. He said crews in his western Kentucky county were busy trying to clear broken branches from roads.

"It's a serious situation," said Kentucky Transportation Secretary Joe Prather. "Our crews are working nonstop, but the snow in many areas is falling faster than we can clear, so it will take time to make headway."

Emergency shelters were set up in several western Kentucky communities.

About 25,000 customers were blacked out in Oklahoma as temperatures hovered in the teens and 20s. More than 42,000 outages were reported in southern and eastern Missouri.

"Lines are still breaking," John Campbell, operations chief for Missouri's Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday night. "All the reports we are getting is they are losing the battle right now just because precipitation is still falling."

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear declared a statewide emergency Tuesday; Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry did the same on Monday.

Hundreds of public schools, colleges and universities called off classes Tuesday in parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Maryland.

"Playing in the snow is pretty much the thing to do today," said student Sarah Bonham at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

Every county reported school closings in West Virginia, where snow on hilly roads changed to sleet and rain in places. As much as 6 inches of snow fell in some areas.

"The roads are still a little bit slimy," said Paul Howard, director of operations for West Virginia's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. "The Division of Highways is knocking their socks off trying to keep the roads sort of clear."

Arkansas state government offices opened two hours late because of the weather. All but essential state workers in Oklahoma were told to stay home. West Virginia state offices shut down early.

And as the storm threatened to barrel into New England, utility companies and road crews in several states prepared for the worst.

The New Hampshire Legislature canceled Wednesday's sessions. Up to 15 inches of snow was forecast Wednesday in New Hampshire.

Since the storm began building on Monday, the weather had been blamed for three deaths in Arkansas, three in Virginia, five in Missouri, two in Oklahoma, one in Indiana and one in Texas.