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April 25, 2014

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Deadly snowstorm halts travel across Great Plains

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AP Photo/The Albuquerque Journal, Dean Hanson

Northbound traffic on I-25 approaches Santa Fe, N.M. in a single file as snow accumulates on the road, Monday Dec. 19, 2011 as a winter storm hit the area. New Mexico state police say a winter storm is shutting highways and causing difficult driving across northern New Mexico. Los Alamos National Laboratory and a number of schools have closed as the storm moves across New Mexico and into the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and parts of Kansas and Colorado.

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 a fatal accident in eastern Colorado, where a guard and an inmate were killed when a prison van lost control along an icy highway. Eight other inmates and a prison employee were hospitalized with moderate to serious injuries, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

National Guard troops and sheriff's deputies in the Texas Panhandle were called out on nearly 100 rescues after Interstate 40, a major east-west route, was closed Monday night from Amarillo into New Mexico. No injuries were immediately reported and several shelters were being set up, Oldham County sheriff's dispatchers 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.

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.

Keith Barras, the owner of the Eklund Hotel, a landmark in Clayton since the 1890s, said guests were happily milling around the lobby and he expected to be full by nightfall.

"We have lots of board games, one of our customers has a guitar, we have a piano, so there'll be a party tonight," Barras said.

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, Kan.

"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."

In the Texas Panhandle, hotels were quickly filling up after I-40 and a handful of roadways heading north into Oklahoma were closed. The last available room was booked by 7 p.m. at the Best Western Country Inn along I-40 in Vega, about 30 miles west of Amarillo, as blowing snow severely restricted visibility on the highway, hotel clerk Lena Patel said.

"I don't see anything," she said, looking from the front window from the front desk.

Long haul truck driver Frank Pringle stopped at a Love's Travel Stop in Amarillo earlier in the day, saying he intended to go as far west as road conditions would allow Monday. His biggest worry was with four-wheel-drive cars because "they will shoot past you and cut you off and you have to hit your brakes. And hitting brakes in the snow is not a good thing."

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Hegeman reported from Wichita, Kan. Associated Press writers Terry Wallace in Dallas; Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Texas; and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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