News24

Deadly snowstorm halts travel in US

2011-12-20 13:40

Albuquerque - A late-autumn snowstorm lumbered into the central US, unleashing snow and fierce winds that turned roads to ice, reduced visibility to zero and jeopardised thousands of holiday motorists' travel plans just two days before the official start of winter.

The storm was blamed for a fatal accident in eastern Colorado, where a guard and an inmate were killed when a prison van lost control along an icy highway. Eight other inmates and a prison employee were hospitalised with moderate to serious injuries, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

National Guard troops and sheriff's deputies in the Texas Panhandle were called out on nearly 100 rescues after Interstate 40, a major east-west route, was closed on Monday night from Amarillo into New Mexico. No injuries were immediately reported and several shelters were being set up, Oldham County sheriff's dispatchers said.

From northern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle through Oklahoma and northwest Kansas, blizzard conditions put state road crews on alert and had motorists taking refuge and early exits off major roads.

Unhappy skiers


In northern New Mexico, snow and ice forced the closure of all roads from the town of Raton to the Texas and Oklahoma borders about 145km away. Hotels in Clayton, New Mexico, 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 on Monday enjoyed relatively balmy 16°C temperatures just 24 hours earlier.

People ‘happy to have a room’

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 on Monday with people "happy they have a room," and some of the children were playing outside in the snow.

Though some drivers were inconvenienced, farmers and meteorologists said the storm was bringing much needed moisture - first rain, then snow as temperatures dropped - to areas of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas that had been parched by a drought that started in the summer of 2010.