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Heavy Snow Blankets West, Causes Travel Delays

  • New_Mexico_Winter_Wea

    Dec. 23: Dozens of vehicles sit along the side of a highway in Rio Rancho, N.M., waiting for authorities to reopen U.S. 550 northbound. (AP)

  • Colorado_Dail

    In this Dec. 22, 2011 photo, Kaylee Vasquez and her children make their way through fresh snow near the Bear Creek Nature Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. (AP)

Heavy snow from a winter storm blanketed parts of the West on Friday, stranding motorists throughout New Mexico, and delaying holiday travelers who were trying to fly in and out of Albuquerque and Denver.

The snow and high winds struck the region Thursday and forced dozens of drivers off Interstate 40 after severe conditions made driving near impossible in western New Mexico.

"If you don't have (four-wheel drive) and you just have two-wheel ... you're either going to spin or stay stuck," stranded motorist Tarquin Wilding told KOAT-TV while in Grants, N.M., on his way to Santa Fe.

Grants and parts of western New Mexico were slammed with more than a foot of snow by Friday morning, the National Weather Service reported. A winter storm warning for the state expired in the afternoon, but meteorologists said the snow wasn't expected to clear up until the weekend.

Some parts of the state saw 17 inches as state and local police responded to dozens of minor accidents. No major injuries were reported.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation closed parts of I-40 around Albuquerque and in eastern New Mexico because of poor driving conditions due to ice and heavy winds. Large portions of I-25 from Truth or Consequences to Las Cruces, and I-10 in western New Mexico also were closed, and authorities were urging motorists to seek shelter in hotels.

In El Paso, Texas, on Friday, a few inches of snow covered roads and yards Friday morning. Some sections of I-10 in the western part of the state were reduced to one lane as officers responded to a rash of accidents.

"We're seeing a lot of ice on the roads," said El Paso police spokesman Darrel Petry.

Snowfall was forecast for other West Texas cities and the central portion of the state by early Saturday. Houston, the Dallas-Fort Worth area and South Texas were expected to get rain on Christmas Eve.

In Rio Rancho, N.M., Police Officer Charles Ritter turned away motorist after motorist along U.S. 550, telling them that much of northwestern New Mexico had been shuttered by the storm.

"It's for their own safety," he said after one woman pleaded unsuccessfully to get past the roadblock so she could get to her father's home in Colorado.

Brian Shoemaker, of Albuquerque, was stuck in a line of motorists who had been stopped by police at a roadblock along U.S. 550 in Rio Rancho, N.M. He was heading to Colorado to spend Christmas with his family and unhappy to learn it would be early afternoon before he could get on the road again.

"Some places in Albuquerque it was horrible, and some places it was great. It's just real spotty," he said. "You'll move from good to bad within two-, three-mile sections."

Jim Hunsaker, an employee with Union Pacific Railroad, had even farther to go. He hoped to get home to Salt Lake City, Utah, before Christmas Eve after spending several days working in New Mexico.

"It's mindboggling that they even close these roads. In Utah, this isn't nothing," he said of the conditions Friday morning. "We travel in conditions like this all the time, so it's kind of frustrating they've got me shut down here."

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said ranchers near Vaughn, N.M., sheltered a number of stranded travelers Thursday evening after heavy snow made roads in east-central New Mexico impassable. Ranchers also took precautions to protect livestock in rural areas in case snow drifts froze and trapped cattle away from unfrozen water.

In Colorado, operations at the Denver International Airport were getting back to normal after a storm that brought about 10 inches of snow. However, airport officials say passengers flying out Friday morning would still have deicing delays of about 25 minutes after leaving their gates.

About 100 flights were canceled at the Denver airport on Thursday because of the snow. Most of those were commuter flights to rural or mountain towns.

A piece of snow removal equipment struck a jet parked at a gate, forcing passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight from Denver to Los Angeles to switch to another plane.

Daniel Jiron, a spokesman for Albuquerque International Sunport, said the Albuquerque airport was seeing fewer delays Friday as conditions improved.

"We've had delays here and there but otherwise we're in good shape," Jiron said.

Anchorage, Alaska, got up to 14 inches of snow early Friday, but Alaska Airlines, the major carrier at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, only had minor delays.

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