Travelers sit in Kansas as snowstorm socks Plains

Published 11:18 am Tuesday, December 20, 2011

TOPEKA, Kan. — Fierce winds and snow that caused fatal accidents and closed 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 roads from eastern New Mexico to Kansas, and nearly 100 rescue calls came in from drivers in the Texas Panhandle as blizzard conditions closed part of Interstate 40, a major east-west route, Monday night.

Travelers through Kansas scrambled to rearrange their plans, mid-trip. The Fairfield Inn in Hays booked three dozen-rooms in a mere 20 minutes Monday night, as drivers got off Interstate 70, the state’s main east-west route, earlier than planned. Greg Boughton, a hydrologist from Cheyenne, Wyo., and his family quit traveling in the afternoon after their SUV nearly slid into a ditch.

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“It wasn’t worth risking it,” he said Tuesday, as he, his wife and their two children prepared to get back on the road, heading east toward family in Tulsa.

About 10 inches of snow fell 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.

Schools in Manhattan, Kan., canceled classes for the day, anticipating several inches of snow. Topeka was pelted by a cold rain, which was expected to turn to a wintry mix of light sleet and snow later in the day.

In Hays, some guests at the Fairfield Inn were extending their stays an extra day, said Randy Beck, who was working the front desk. To the west, a 70-mile stretch of I-70 was among the roads that remained closed Tuesday morning.

“Southwest Kansas is pretty much shut down completely,” said Derek Latham, a dispatcher for the Kansas Highway Patrol in Salina. “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.”

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.

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 on an icy road in eastern Colorado.

The late-autumn snowstorm lumbered into the region Monday, turning roads to ice and reducing visibility to zero.

In northern New Mexico, snow and ice closed all the 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, filled up. Multiple highways remained closed early Tuesday.

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.

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.

The storm was tapering off Tuesday in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles. Up to a foot of snow fell in Boise City, Okla., and Dalhart, Texas, located 30 miles south of the Oklahoma state line, got 7 inches.

Texas officials warned travelers to stay off the roads in the Texas Panhandle, particularly west of Amarillo, so crews working to remove snow and ice would have a clear path.