Powerful storm pummels the Rockies, closing roads
SALT LAKE CITY – A powerful snowstorm pummeled the Rockies on Wednesday, bringing whiteout conditions to parts of the region and closing roads on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
The hectic storm that buried Seattle in snow and shut down highways in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah earlier in the week was expected to push a strong cold front south and east across New Mexico, where wind speeds were to increase steadily through the morning. In northern Arizona, drivers were warned to prepare for wind gusts of 25 to 35 mph with drastically reduced visibility in blowing snow.
A blizzard warning was in effect for the Vail, Aspen and Telluride areas in Colorado, with six to 12 inches of snow forecast and winds expected to gust to 60 mph. The storm moved east to the Colorado mountains Wednesday, leaving northern Utah in frigid temperatures with little traffic on the roads after a night of 118 traffic collisions and 119 slide-offs, Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Todd Johnson said.
"A lot of people heeded the message, stayed off the road and cut down on a lot of problems," Johnson said Wednesday. "The crash figures — they're not as high as I expected them to be."
By Wednesday morning, Utah Department of Transportation cameras showed most of the state's highways were clear of snow, although some slick spots remained. Highway officials in Idaho reopened Interstate 84 at the Utah border Wednesday morning.
In Wyoming, Interstate 80 from Lyman to Evanston, which is on the Utah border, remained closed.
National Weather Service snow totals showed it wasn't the quantity of snow that made traveling dangerous Tuesday. Most cities in Utah received less than 6 inches in the past 24 hours — an amount residents here are accustomed to. Instead, the danger largely came from high winds blowing snow at night that made it difficult for travelers to see.
The storm crippled much of the Pacific Northwest on Monday and Tuesday, and at least three deaths in Washington state have been blamed on the weather, including a man struck and killed outside his car Monday night on snowy Interstate 5 in Tacoma. On Wednesday, the temperature at Sea-Tac Airport dropped to 14 degrees, a 25-year low, but the Federal Aviation Administration reported no significant delays as of midday.
Officials in Portland, Ore., also were investigating whether a man whose body was found along the Willamette River died from the cold.
Even cold-hardened Alaskans were complaining, with freezing rain making travel hazardous if not impossible. Fairbanks was among the hardest-hit; schools closed and most government agencies and military bases told nonessential workers to stay home.
"I don't think the roads can get much worse," said David Gibbs, emergency operations director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Andy Haner, a weather service meteorologist in Seattle, said the storm blew down from Alaska before turning toward the Northern Rockies. Forecasters said temperatures would remain near freezing, with a slight chance of snow in Seattle and Western Washington on Thursday morning, and rain developing into the weekend. Eastern Washington had a good chance of several days of snow starting Thursday night.
The storm left 3 to 6 inches of snow in Utah's mountain valleys and up to 17 inches in the Wasatch mountains, weather service meteorologist Mike Seaman said.
"We're left with this unseasonably cold arctic air mass," Seaman said Wednesday. "We're looking at temperatures in the teens and the first hard freeze of the year for southern Utah."
Numerous schools, governments and businesses in Utah closed hours earlier than normal Tuesday because of the storm, with highway officials telling holiday travelers to get out of town or risk being stranded on Thanksgiving.
Windy, snowy conditions in northern Utah led officials to temporarily shut down Interstate 84 into Idaho and Interstate 15 in northern Utah on Tuesday after two tractor-trailers jackknifed and blocked traffic. Even once the roads were reopened, visibility was still limited there and elsewhere.
In Idaho, a large section of Interstate 15 — from Idaho Falls to the Montana border — was shut down.
In Seattle, icy roads kept airline crews from getting to the airport, and people who missed their flights because of the dangerous drive were trying to rebook on already crowded planes.
Of the nearly 300 flights scheduled to take off from Salt Lake City International Airport Tuesday evening, nine had been canceled, although it wasn't immediately clear if all of those were caused by the storm.
The tiny central Washington town of Waterville became a refuge when the blizzard blasted across the scattered wheat fields and sagebrush along U.S. Highway 2.
The Washington State Patrol Tuesday launched a plane equipped with a heat-seeking camera to look for stranded motorists from Seattle south to Olympia. It said that in the 24 hours ending at 10 a.m., troopers had responded to 1,557 collisions and 1,274 disabled motorists statewide.
None of Colorado's interstate highways was closed early Wednesday, but highway officials closed some minor mountain passes and required chains on commercial vehicles.
Little snow accumulation was predicted in Denver and eastern Colorado, but National Weather Service meteorologist Larry Walrod said mountain areas along the Continental Divide could see up to 3 feet of snow on the ground by Thanksgiving morning.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers George Tibbits, Phuong Le and Donna Gordon Blankinship in Seattle; Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane; Rachel La Corte in Olympia; Mary Pemberton in Anchorage; Mark Carlson in Phoenix; and Ivan Moreno in Denver.