Deadly snowstorm halts travel across Great Plains

Dec 20 2011 - 11:00am

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Longmont police respond to three separate weather-related accidents as snow falls on Colo. Hwy. 66 at Francis Street in Longmont, Colo., on Monday, Dec. 19, 2001. A major storm is bringing blizzard conditions to Colorado's southeastern corner, where ranches and farms have been hit hard by drought. (AP Photo/Longmont Times-Call, Richard M. Hackett)
Emily Henry and her dog Showlow go for a run/walk along Old Santa Fe Trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico as Santa Fe residents deal with the winter storm that hit Monday Dec. 19, 2011. New Mexico state police say a winter storm is shutting highways and causing difficult driving across northern New Mexico. Los Alamos National Laboratory and a number of schools have closed as the storm moves across New Mexico and into the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and parts of Kansas and Colorado. (AP Photo/The New Mexican, Clyde Mueller)
Snow plow clears snow from Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico Monday, Dec. 19, 2011, as Santa Fe residents deal with a winter storm. New Mexico state police say a winter storm is shutting highways and causing difficult driving across northern New Mexico. Los Alamos National Laboratory and a number of schools have closed as the storm moves across New Mexico and into the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and parts of Kansas and Colorado. (AP Photo/The New Mexican, Clyde Mueller)
A motorist negotiates a slick road in Placitas, N.M., on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. A major winter storm was moving across New Mexico on Monday, closing highways and stranding motorists in blizzard conditions. The storm is expected to bring as much as 20 inches of snow to the northeastern part of the state. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
Traffic passes on Main street in Garden City, Kan. as residents brace for white out conditions, heavy snow and high winds on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for all of western Kansas except the far northwestern corner. (AP Photo/The Garden City Telegram, Laurie Sisk)
Longmont police respond to three separate weather-related accidents as snow falls on Colo. Hwy. 66 at Francis Street in Longmont, Colo., on Monday, Dec. 19, 2001. A major storm is bringing blizzard conditions to Colorado's southeastern corner, where ranches and farms have been hit hard by drought. (AP Photo/Longmont Times-Call, Richard M. Hackett)
Emily Henry and her dog Showlow go for a run/walk along Old Santa Fe Trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico as Santa Fe residents deal with the winter storm that hit Monday Dec. 19, 2011. New Mexico state police say a winter storm is shutting highways and causing difficult driving across northern New Mexico. Los Alamos National Laboratory and a number of schools have closed as the storm moves across New Mexico and into the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and parts of Kansas and Colorado. (AP Photo/The New Mexican, Clyde Mueller)
Snow plow clears snow from Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico Monday, Dec. 19, 2011, as Santa Fe residents deal with a winter storm. New Mexico state police say a winter storm is shutting highways and causing difficult driving across northern New Mexico. Los Alamos National Laboratory and a number of schools have closed as the storm moves across New Mexico and into the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and parts of Kansas and Colorado. (AP Photo/The New Mexican, Clyde Mueller)
A motorist negotiates a slick road in Placitas, N.M., on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. A major winter storm was moving across New Mexico on Monday, closing highways and stranding motorists in blizzard conditions. The storm is expected to bring as much as 20 inches of snow to the northeastern part of the state. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
Traffic passes on Main street in Garden City, Kan. as residents brace for white out conditions, heavy snow and high winds on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for all of western Kansas except the far northwestern corner. (AP Photo/The Garden City Telegram, Laurie Sisk)

WICHITA, Kan. -- Fierce winds and snow that caused fatal road accidents and shuttered highways in five states, crawled deeper into the Great Plains early Tuesday, with forecasters warning that pre-holiday travel would be difficult if not impossible across the region.

Hotels were filling up quickly along major roadways from eastern New Mexico to Kansas, and nearly 100 rescue calls came in from motorists in the Texas Panhandle as blizzard conditions forced closed part of Interstate 40, a major east-west route, Monday night.

About 10 inches of snow had fallen in western Kansas before dawn Tuesday and several more inches along with strong wind gusts were expected, National Weather Service meteorologist Marc Russell said.

"We're talking about whiteout conditions," he said.

Heather Haltli, 29, and her husband were traveling from their home at Hill Air Force Base in Utah to attend a family funeral in Abilene, Texas, but the storm slowed them down so badly that they had to take refuge at the Comfort Inn in Garden City, Kan.

"We've been traveling about 20 miles per hour all the way from Denver," Haltli said Tuesday. She said they had passed up to 15 wrecks including rollovers, upside down cars and jackknifed trucks as they drove through Colorado.

"I don't think we'll be able to make the funeral, but we'll keep going," she said.

Colorado Highway Patrol trooper Nate Reid said the freezing rain and fog came in so fast on Monday that it caught a lot of drivers unaware.

"I can't even count how many rollovers we had," Reid said.

Snowpack and icy conditions forced the closure of roadways across western and southwestern Kansas, including a western section of the I-70, the main thoroughfare that traverses the state.

"Southwest Kansas is pretty much shut down completely," Derek Latham, a dispatcher for the Kansas Highway Patrol in Salina said early Tuesday. "I have one trooper who almost went into a ditch this morning, and he came across four other cars that went into a ditch. That was just this morning."

The storm was blamed for at least six deaths Monday, authorities said. Four people were killed when their vehicle collided with a pickup truck in part of eastern New Mexico where blizzard-like conditions are rare, and a prison guard and inmate died when a prison van crashed along an icy roadway in eastern Colorado.

The late-autumn snowstorm lumbered into the region Monday, turning roads to ice and reducing visibility to zero. The conditions put state road crews on alert and had motorists taking refuge and early exits off major roads across the region.

In northern New Mexico, snow and ice shuttered all roads from Raton to the Texas and Oklahoma borders about 90 miles away. Hotels in Clayton, N.M., just east of where the three states touch, were nearly full. Multiple highways remained closed early Tuesday.

Linda Pape, general manager of the Clayton Super 8 motel said it was packed with unhappy skiers who had been headed to lodges in Colorado and elsewhere in New Mexico.

"They lost a day or two of skiing, and they had budgeted an amount of money they were going to spend, and now they have to spend more staying somewhere else," she said.

Pape said it's not uncommon for skiers to get stuck in Clayton during the winter, and she keeps two freezers and a refrigerator stocked in case roads are closed.

"They are not happy, but we are not letting them go hungry," she said.

The storm came after much of the country had a relatively mild fall. With the exception of the October snowstorm blamed for 29 deaths on the East Coast, there's been little rain or snow. Many of the areas hit Monday enjoyed relatively balmy 60-degree temperatures just 24 hours earlier.

Snowfall tapered off early Tuesday in the Oklahoma Panhandle, although the weather service warned of blowing snow and single digit temperatures later after dark. Up to a foot of snow fell in Boise City, Okla.

On Monday, mail carrier Vicki Roberts said she could no longer see the nearby 4,973-foot-tall Black Mesa, the highest point in Oklahoma, from the window of her home in Kenton.

"I have a mail route and I'm not going," Roberts said. "You just don't get out in this. We'll be socked in here. If we lose power, we'll just read a book in front of the fireplace."

Travel throughout the region was difficult. New Mexico shut down a portion of Interstate 25, the major route heading northeast of Santa Fe into Colorado, and Clayton police dispatcher Cindy Blackwell said her phones were "ringing off the hook" with calls from numerous motorists stuck on rural roads.

Bill Cook, who works at the Best Western in Clayton, said he hadn't seen such a storm since the 1970s, when cattle had to be airlifted with helicopters and the National Guard was called in to help out. His hotel was packed Monday with people "happy they have a room," and some of the children were playing outside in the snow.

Keith Barras, the owner of the Eklund Hotel, a landmark in Clayton since the 1890s, said guests were happily milling around the lobby and he expected to be full by nightfall.

"We have lots of board games, one of our customers has a guitar, we have a piano, so there'll be a party tonight," Barras said.

Clausing reported from Albuquerque, N.M. Associated Press writers Terry Wallace in Dallas; Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Texas; Maria Fisher in Kansas City, Mo.; and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

 

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