Colorado blizzard shuts down Denver

Published 7:18 pm Thursday, December 21, 2006

Stranded travelers lined up at ticket counters at snowbound Denver International Airport early Thursday, hoping to get out of town amid a powerful snowstorm that paralyzed Colorado’s biggest cities with up to 2 feet of snow.

The news wasn’t comforting: While some flight updates still said “on time,” airport spokesman Steve Snyder said the runways likely wouldn’t open before noon Friday.

The airport crews simply can’t keep up with the falling and drifting snow, Snyder said. They plow the runways, but within 30 minutes, the tarmacs are covered again.

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“It feels like I’m a refugee,” said Lisa Maurer, a University of Wyoming student who was stuck at the Denver airport as she tried to make her way home to Germany. Some 4,700 people hunkered down with her overnight after all flights there were canceled — more than 1,000 of them Wednesday and Thursday morning alone.

Denver’s streets were empty, and long stretches of highway in the eastern Colorado were so impassable, even the mail couldn’t get through. Bus and light rail service in a six-county region was suspended.

Cathy Stuart, 44, a sales representative from Dallas, spent the night on the airport’s stone floor after her flight home was canceled.

“I don’t feel bad, but I just want to get out of here,” she said.

More than 30 inches of snow fell in the Colorado mountains, and up to 2 feet fell in the Denver metro area Wednesday and early Thursday. A snowstorm also dumped up to 18 inches on New Mexico, icing roads and closing schools, and the National Weather Service warned that another storm was taking aim at the New Mexico Friday night.

In Denver, Colorado Springs and other cities along the Rocky Mountain Front Range, workers slipped and slid their way home on Wednesday and stayed there, leaving the cities virtual ghost towns Thursday, typically a busy shopping day. A few pedestrians trudging down the middle of unplowed streets as the snow continued.

Three more inches of wind-whipped snow was expected Thursday before tapering off in the afternoon. Parts of Nebraska and Kansas were also getting snow and ice, but farther east, warmer temperatures meant even Chicago was only forecast to get heavy rain as the storm moved through.

In Colorado’s socked-in eastern half, few travelers were going anywhere.

The Colorado Springs airport reopened and some airlines were flying, but getting there was nearly impossible.

Gov. Bill Owens declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard, which assisted dozens of motorists on the highways around Denver and delivered diapers, formula and bottled water to Denver’s airport.

Long stretches of Interstates 70 and 25, the main east-west and north-south routes through the Mountain West, were closed. Interstate 76 was closed from Denver to Nebraska. The State Patrol had reported a rash of car crashes on the open roads but no fatalities.

“They pulled everyone off the highway,” said Leon Medina, manager of a truck stop on Interstate 25 in Walsenburg, about 130 miles south of Denver. “Cars are all around the building. Trucks are all over, trucks and cars pulled into ditches.”

At least 270 people took refuge at American Red Cross shelters in the Denver area and the number was expected to rise as motorists arrived by the busload early Thursday, said Robert Thompson, spokesman for the Mile High chapter.

“It’s just amazing how many people are still out there,” he said.

The Red Cross provided 140 cots for nearly 350 people stranded at a Greyhound bus station in downtown Denver, Thompson said.

Weather Service program manager Byron Louis said it was the most powerful storm to hit Colorado since March 2003, when a massive blizzard dumped up to 11 feet of snow in the mountains over several days and was blamed for at least six deaths.

Major malls closed early Wednesday. One, Flatirons Crossing Mall in Broomfield, northwest of Denver, offered warmth for motorists stranded along U.S. 36, the major link between Denver and Boulder.

Mail service was canceled in the eastern half of the state because mail carriers and trucks delivering mail four days before Christmas couldn’t get through.

“We don’t want to take the risk of clogging up the system just by being out there,” said Al DeSarro, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman in Denver. “We’re considering delivering on Sunday to make up for what’s sure to be a backlog of mail.”

At Denver International Airport, a major hub for United Airlines, United canceled more than 670 inbound flights, plus 160 that had been scheduled leave before noon Thursday. Frontier Airlines canceled up to 190 flights.

“It’s the wind and blowing and drifting snow that is causing the main problems,” Snyder said.

Some airport monitors tantalized travelers by listing “on time” beside arrivals and departures, but Snyder said that was probably caused by a computer glitch.

“I’m just happy to be alive. It was a terrifying drive,” Sara Kelton said of the two-hour crawl over slick, snow-clogged roads to reach the airport.

Thirteen hours after Alan Barr left his Denver office for a bus ride home to Boulder, he was stuck at a Red Cross shelter in Denver, not much closer to home than when he left. His bus had set out from Denver hours late, then had to turn back.

Barr trudged into the shelter shortly after midnight with other discouraged riders but said he had not given up on the bus system.

“Days like today are an exception,” he said. “I believe in public transportation.”

Commuters on several buses had similar experiences, said Scott Reed, spokesman for the Regional Transportation District: “It was absolute gridlock.”

Public transit service was not expected to resume until late Thursday at the earliest.

“It was comical for a while,” said bus rider Matt Notter of Boulder. “Then we realized, this is an all-night thing.”