Blizzard closes highways from New Mexico to Kansas

Blizzard conditions shut down parts of I-40 and I-70 in New Mexico, Kansas, and Texas. At least six traffic fatalities were blamed on the snowstorm and high winds.

By , Associated Press

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    Travelers drive along U.S. 550 near Rio Rancho, N.M., on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. A major winter storm was moving across New Mexico closed highways and stranding motorists in blizzard conditions.
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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.

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

IN PICTURES: Stranded by the snow

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.

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.

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.

The snow moved into the Oklahoma Panhandle early Monday, and 1.5 inches accumulated in about an hour, said Vicki Roberts, who owns the Black Mesa Bed and Breakfast in Kenton. Her inn sits at the base of the 4,973-foot-tall Black Mesa, the highest point in Oklahoma. Looking out her window, she couldn't see it.

"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.

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

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

IN PICTURES: Stranded by the snow

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