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Deadly Southwestern Snowstorm Brings Dangerous Conditions, Halts Travel

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Dec. 19, 2011: Traffic passes on Main street in Garden City, Kan. as residents brace for white out conditions, heavy snow and high winds. (AP)

Fierce winds and snow that caused fatal accidents and shuttered highways in five states crawled deeper into the central U.S. 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 travel throughout the region was difficult.

Nearly 100 rescue calls came in from motorists in northern Texas as blizzard conditions forced closed part of Interstate 40, a major east-west route, Monday night.

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.

About 10 inches (25 centimeters) 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.

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

The storm came after much of the country had a relatively mild fall. Except for 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 (15-degree Celsius) temperatures just 24 hours earlier.

Authorities said six people have died as a result of the bad weather. 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 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.

Linda Pape, general manager of the Clayton Super 8 motel in Colorado said it was packed with unhappy skiers who had been headed to lodges in Colorado and elsewhere in New Mexico.

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.

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.

Virginia Kepley, 73, spent Monday afternoon baking pumpkin bread to give as Christmas gifts while snow fell on her farm near Ulysses, Kansas.

"I decided to try to get as much done today in case the electricity goes off and I can't make it tomorrow," she said.

Kepley was grateful for the snow after some of her family's wheat never got enough moisture to sprout last season. A new crop had been planted in the fall for harvest next summer.

"It is wonderful for the wheat," Kepley said. "At least we have wheat we can see this year."