By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Spring storms unleashed heavy snow, rain and high winds, including tornadoes, across parts of the central United States on Wednesday, leaving thousands of residents and businesses without power and causing scattered property damage.
At least three people were taken to the hospital with injuries attributed to severe weather in Van Buren County, Arkansas, where an apparent twister tore through a church near the town of Clinton, damaged other buildings and uprooted trees, officials said.
Electricity was knocked out to some 4,000 customers Wednesday night, nearly half of them around Clinton, utility officials reported.
In Missouri, about 15 homes were damaged by high winds believed to be from tornado activity in the suburbs west and northwest of St. Louis, the bulk of them in the community of Hazelwood, said Bill Roach, a spokesman for the St. Louis County office of emergency management.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and issued a bulletin saying that "a system of strong storms and tornadoes caused damage in the St. Louis region and other areas of the state."
It said an unspecified number of tornado touchdowns were confirmed in the St. Louis area but gave no estimates of damage.
Roach said some homes sustained extensive damage, including one hit by a large, fallen tree, and that the storm cluttered many roads with debris, but no injuries were reported in the area.
"We dodged a bullet again," he told Reuters.
The storms struck after dark as forecasters tracked a line of severe weather stretching from Arkansas through Missouri into Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
To the north, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed an emergency order allowing the National Guard to call up personnel as needed to provide for recovery and shelter in southern Minnesota, where an ice storm caused widespread power outages.
The National Weather service forecast up to a foot of snow (30 cm) in an area stretching across central Minnesota. Freezing rain and ice downed power lines and trees in southwest Minnesota, emergency management officials there said.
Heavy snow in South Dakota prompted state offices to close on Wednesday, as more than 2 feet (60 cm) of snow was falling. North Dakota also saw heavy snow, and Kansas City was under a flash-flood warning due to heavy rainfall.
The severe conditions set in on Tuesday, grounding nearly 500 flights out of Denver International Airport and dropping hail, some tennis ball-sized, through Texas and Oklahoma.
But conditions in the Plains were tamer on Wednesday. Denver International reported clear runways and a resumption of normal flight schedules.
The heavy rain and snow should benefit areas of the Plains that have been stricken by persistent drought. Soil moisture levels have been so depleted that farmers have been fearful they may not be able to produce a crop this year. But the bout of precipitation helps, weather service meteorologist Greg Carbin said.
"We'll take everything we can get even if it comes with a little bit of hail and wind," he said. "There are aspects of this system that are actually quite beneficial."
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Additional reporting by Steve Olafson in Oklahoma City; David Bailey in Minneapolis; and Suzi Parker in Little Rock, Arkansas; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, Richard Chang, Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)