The first blizzard of the season shut down much of the western Plains on Saturday, with up to 3 feet of wind-driven snow closing hundreds of miles of highways and leaving travelers snowbound in bus depots, airports and truck stops.
Even people trained for severe conditions couldn’t reach their destinations: search and rescue specialist Micki Marti tried to get from Denver to her home in Last Chance, but never made it beyond Byers, 25 miles east of Denver on Interstate 70.
“I even tried the back roads. I’m only 28 miles from home. But it was all closed,” Marti said by telephone from a Red Cross shelter at the Byers American Legion Hall, where she was one of about 25 stranded travelers.
In a storm compared to the paralyzing Christmas blizzard of 1982, interstates and other highways were closed across a large part of eastern Colorado. Roads also were shut down in southeastern Wyoming and adjoining sections of Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico as the storm churned east.
“We’re flat shut down,” Lincoln County sheriff’s spokesman Dale Briggs said in Hugo, Colo. “The only things moving are four-wheel-drives and emergency vehicles.”
“It’s just nasty,” said Officer Cary Amos of the Sherman County Sheriff’s Department in Goodland, Kan.
Visibility across dozens of highways was reduced to nearly nothing by snow whipped by winds up to 50 mph. Some 4 feet of snow was expected in the Colorado mountains, while 51 inches had already fallen at Coal Creek Canyon, 30 inches in Boulder and 22 inches in Denver.
One of the hardest hit areas was the most populous stretch of Colorado: the Front Range, a nearly 200-mile swath from Ft. Collins south through Denver and Colorado Springs to Pueblo, where power outages forced about 75 people to leave their cold homes for a Red Cross shelter.
Late Saturday, the State Patrol barred non-emergency travel along some 300 miles of the Front Range, from Wyoming to New Mexico.
The snow finally tapered off Saturday night. It was the worst snowstorm in Denver in 28 years, with 22 inches by Saturday evening surpassing the 16 inches recorded in 1969.
“Fortunately I don’t know of any deaths,” said Gov. Roy Romer, who ordered the National Guard to rescue stranded motorists. “But we have our work cut out for us. We have to get people out of their cars and into shelters.”
In southern Wyoming, two U.S. Forest Service employees who spent a cold, snowy night outdoors walked to safety Saturday night. Authorities said the hunters were surprised by the strong storm Friday and became lost.
The storm caused scattered power outages in several Colorado communities, and utility officials said they couldn’t begin work on restoring service until the wind died down.
Colorado Springs even pulled its snowplows off the roads because the snow was falling too fast, covering cars in some cases.
Thousands of hungry travelers were stranded at Denver International Airport, which was closed most of Saturday. Airport spokesman Chuck Cannon said most restaurants were closed; a flight kitchen was open and the Red Cross was also handing out sandwiches and coffee.
The Denver Broncos’ flight to Buffalo was delayed, but the team finally flew out around 7:15 p.m. Saturday for today’s game against the Bills. The chartered plane was the first flight to leave the airport since Friday night.
“I’ve been covering the Broncos for 25 years and it’s the first time I’m flying to Buffalo for better weather,” said KUSA-TV sportscaster Ron Zapollo.
In Nebraska, up to a foot of snow forced the State Patrol to close a 125-mile stretch of Interstate 80 from Ogallala to the Wyoming state line. Hundreds of people in at least five counties were without power.
At Kimball, Neb., tractor-trailer rigs had jammed the parking lot of the Beef and Brunch since Friday night.
“The weather scared them,” restaurant manager Vonna Scott said of the truck drivers. “We’re just in here pouring them a good time.”