Spring storm clobbers Colorado | AspenTimes.com
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Spring storm clobbers Colorado

Kristen Wyatt
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Motorists sit stranded on the off ramp going towards Broomfield in Boulder, Colo., on Thursday, March 26, 2009. Snow was falling at up to 2 inches an hour, and by midday up to 9 inches had accumulated at the base of the foothills west of Denver. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson)
AP | CODEN

DENVER ” Airlines canceled hundreds of flights at the Denver airport, schools shut down and roads were closed as a major spring storm brought heavy snow and gusty winds to much of Colorado on Thursday.

Soggy snow was falling at up to 2 inches an hour, and by mid-afternoon nearly 20 inches had piled up in the mountains northwest of Denver, the National 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.

Up to 75 vehicles crashed or slid off Interstate 25 in northern Colorado, and 12 people were hospitalized at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center in Cheyenne, Wyo. Six were in fair condition, but hospital spokeswoman Kathy Baker said she didn’t know the conditions of the other six. Three others were treated for minor injuries and released.

Authorities initially said 33 were hurt and then gave varying numbers in later announcements. They said some of the people who were taken to the hospital either turned out to be uninjured or refused treatment.

Authorities shut down more than 40 miles of Interstate 25, from the northern Colorado town of Wellington into Wyoming.

A 10-mile section of westbound U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder was closed, but eastbound lanes were reopened.

In southern Colorado, 45 miles of I-25 between Pueblo and Walsenburg and 20 miles of U.S. 50 between Pueblo and Penrose were closed.

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.

By midday, the Aspen Skiing Co. was reporting 10 inches of new snow at Snowmass over the past 24 hours and 19 inches since midday Tuesday. Aspen Mountain had 9 inches since midday Wednesday and 14 inches over the past 48 hours.

“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.


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