December 20, 2011 in Nation/World

Snowstorm halts travel across Great Plains

At least two killed; motorists stranded
Jeri Clausing Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Southbound traffic on Interstate 25 leaves Santa Fe, N.M., as snow accumulates on the road Monday as a winter storm hits the area.
(Full-size photo)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A late-autumn snowstorm lumbered into the Great Plains on Monday, unleashing snow and fierce winds that turned roads to ice, reduced visibility to zero and jeopardized thousands of holiday motorists’ travel plans just two days before the official start of winter.

The storm was blamed for at least two deaths in Colorado. A guard and an inmate were killed after a prison van lost control on an icy highway five miles east of Limon on Colorado’s plains. Eight other inmates and a prison employee were hospitalized with moderate to serious injuries, the Colorado State Patrol said.

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

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 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 morning, 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.

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