Spring storm leaves much-needed moisture in wake | VailDaily.com

Spring storm leaves much-needed moisture in wake

Dan Elliott
Associated Press Writer
Denver, CO Colorado
Sandy Kelly, of Masidonia, Ohio, crosses Mountain Avenue at the College Avenue intersection during a spring snow storm expected to drop up to a foot of fresh snow in Fort Collins on Thursday, March 26, 2009. Kelly who is visiting family in the area was expecting warmer, sunnier onditions for spring vacation.
AP | Coloradoan

DENVER ” A major spring storm that moved across most of Colorado left some much-needed moisture in its wake ” in the form of heavy snow that blanketed the Front Range urban corridor, the northern and central mountains and the eastern plains, the National Weather Service said.

Snowfall totals for Thursday included 16.2 inches in Boulder, 12 inches in Greeley, 11.5 inches in northwest Denver, and 17.3 inches in the Westminster/Broomfield area.

Winter conditions persisted into Thursday night as the storm moved to the southeast toward Kansas and Oklahoma.

Earlier in the day, airlines canceled hundreds of flights at the Denver airport, schools shut down and roads were closed as the storm brought heavy snow and gusty winds to much of Colorado.

Soggy snow was falling at up to 2 inches an hour, and by late afternoon nearly 20 inches had piled up in the mountains northwest of Denver, the weather service said.

Nearly 18 inches fell in the unincorporated community of Gothic, near Crested Butte about 120 miles southwest of Denver. The west Denver suburb of Broomfield reported more than 15 inches.

Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. Guard spokesman Lt. Darin Overstreet said the soldiers were waiting for orders.

Dozens of vehicles crashed or slid off Interstate 25 in northern Colorado, and 15 people were treated and released at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Colorado authorities said up to 75 vehicles were involved but had no details. Wyoming authorities said it was about 50 vehicles in three separate pileups.

Authorities shut down more than 40 miles of Interstate 25, from the northern Colorado town of Wellington into Wyoming. The stretch of road stayed closed all day as high winds hampered efforts to reopen it.

Other closures that remained in effect Thursday night included U.S. 24 between Colorado Springs and Limon; Colorado 65 at Grand Mesa; U.S. 6 at Loveland Pass; and U.S. 160 between Alamosa and Walsenburg.

Portions of U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder were closed during the day but reopened in both directions Thursday evening. However, Transportation Department officials warned that the road remained snowpacked and icy, with high winds creating snow drifts on the highway.

In southern Colorado, 45 miles of I-25 between Pueblo and Walsenburg reopened late Thursday, while a 20-mile section of U.S. 50 between Pueblo and Penrose reopened Thursday evening.

During the day, winds gusted to nearly 40 mph in Denver, reducing visibility to a half-mile or less in some areas. The Regional Transportation District, the Denver-area mass-transit service, pulled its buses off the roads in Longmont, Colo., 30 miles north of Denver because of whiteout conditions.

“I saw three flipped cars,” said Zachary Whitaker, who spent four hours driving his grandmother to the Denver airport from Gering, Neb. “Five more run off the road. Cars in ditches all over.”

The Red Cross opened six shelters for stranded motorists.

The Eastern Plains remained under a blizzard warning, but a blizzard warning for metro Denver was canceled and downgraded to a winter storm warning. Most of the western half of the state was also under a winter storm warning.

Forecasters predicted up to 2 feet of snow south and east of Denver by Friday and up to 15 inches in the city itself.

The Denver International Airport terminal was thick with stranded travelers standing before monitors reeling off dozens of “CANCELED” alerts.

“I’m trying to go visit my granddaughter” during spring break, fretted Peggy Johnson of Morrison, Colo. Johnson’s flight to Missoula, Mont., was canceled.

“It’s just been, pffft,” sighed Roberta Denham of Littleton, a 63-year-old retiree waiting at the airport to see if she would get to Tel Aviv for a Holy Week tour. “It’s supposed to be beautiful there right now. We’ll see if we make it,” she said.

United Airlines, DIA’s biggest carrier, canceled a combined 280 arrivals and departures in Denver by Thursday afternoon, said airline spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.

Frontier Airlines, Denver’s second-busiest carrier, canceled 54 flights and its Lynx commuter affiliate canceled 33, said spokesman Steve Snyder. Southwest Airlines canceled at least 82 flights in and out of DIA and American canceled 26.

The airport deployed 300 pieces of equipment to keep runways and roadways clear, and some flights were still taking off and landing. The road to the airport remained open but was down to one lane each way.

Amtrak and freight railroads reported no disruptions.

The storm was welcome news for some people after a dry winter marked by repeated brush fires and fire warnings.

“We’re happy. We were hoping for this,” said Shawn Martini, a spokesman for the Colorado Farm Bureau.

“It may disrupt some guys who were in the field planting,” he said. “But at this point, they can delay that because the water is more important.”

The storm was a mixed blessing for ranchers because it hit just as cows were giving birth to calves.

“Blizzards are never a friend of ranchers in the middle of calving season,” said John Stulp, the state agriculture commissioner who has a farm and ranch in southeast Colorado.

“We can always use the moisture, but I think most ranchers would prefer having rain. But this is Colorado, and so we’re certainly faced with blizzards on a regular basis,” he said.

The storm was also a boost to the bottom line at Colorado’s ski resorts. Vail reported a foot of new snow, while Monarch reported 15 inches.

“It’s extremely exciting for us, especially with the timing of spring break,” said Vail Resorts spokeswoman Amy Kemp.

While the lifts were hauling skiers up the slopes at the company’s four Colorado resorts, its corporate office in suburban Denver was closed because of the weather.

It was the heaviest snow to hit Denver and other cities at the eastern edge of the mountains since December 2007, when three successive storms dumped a total of more than 30 inches.

Dozens of school districts called off classes Thursday; others were closed for spring break. The University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins shut down early.

At the state Capitol in Denver, lawmakers in the House challenged their counterparts in the Senate to a snowball fight on the statehouse lawn. But like so many political promises, this one fell short: It wasn’t much more than two Republican senators heaving snowballs at a Democrat trying to brush the snow off his car.

Both the House and the Senate shut down early, as did state and federal courts, many city governments and the Denver Zoo.


Associated Press Writers Kristen Wyatt, Mead Gruver, Steven K. Paulson, Colleen Slevin, Don Mitchell and Alysia Patterson contributed to this report.

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