Crews work to restore power, bring hay and groceries to those stranded in snowbound Plains

Published 7:37 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Utility crews struggled to restore electrical service to tens of thousands of homes as grocery store shelves went bare and ranchers tried to reach hungry cattle isolated after a blizzard dumped nearly 3 feet of snow on the Plains and Colorado.

National Guard and state workers were preparing Tuesday to bring groceries into snowbound areas with Humvees and drop hay bales into farm fields.

Overhead, planes have been searching snow-covered highways and fields for stranded travelers and using heat-sensing equipment to locate farm animals in need of food. Hay could be dropped by military planes or helicopters or delivered by snowmobile. Colorado National Guard Maj. Gen. Mason Whitney said Tuesday that Oklahoma sent helicopters to help.

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What no one wants is a repeat of 1997, when a blizzard killed up to 30,000 farm animals and cost farmers and ranchers an estimated $28 million, said Polly White of the Colorado Division of Emergency Management.

Ice and heavy snow also bent over electrical towers and downed hundreds of miles of power lines. At least 60,000 homes and businesses in western Kansas and 15,000 in Nebraska were without electricity, and some utility officials warned it could more than a week to restore.

“We know that customers are getting frustrated,” said Beth Boesch, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Public Power District, which lost 600 miles of power lines. “We just ask people to be patient. The damage is very widespread, and it’s going to take some time to put it back together.”

In the snowbound Kansas town of Sharon Springs, there was still no way into or out of town for its 835 residents Monday, but at least they didn’t lose power, said Bill Hassett, manager of the town’s power plant.

“We’re snowed under,” Hassett said. “We’re just in the process of digging out. We had total 36 inches of snow. Thank God we kept the lights on.”

Two stranded vehicles were spotted Sunday by the Kansas Highway Patrol’s airplane crew near the Colorado border, and their occupants were rescued by sheriff’s deputies.

Slightly warmer temperatures on Monday helped workers trying to reopen the roads, said Kansas Department of Transportation spokesman Ron Kaufman.

In southeastern Colorado, the roof of an assisted living center in Walsh collapsed, but there were no reports of injuries, White said. The center is attached to a nursing home and residents were moved there. She said about 3,000 people were without power in the towns of Lamar and Walsh.

The Colorado National Guard, which the governor activated twice in the span of a week because of the back-to-back blizzards, helped carry emergency supplies such as medicine and baby formula to isolated homes, said Col. Hans Kallam.

At the Wooten family’s ranch in canyon land along the Purgatorie River near the southeastern Colorado town of Kim, Steve Wooten and his uncle spent Monday checking on their cattle. They had moved most of the animals closer to the house but had some that had not been fed since the latest storm hit on Thursday.

Still, after several years of drought, Joy Wooten said she was thankful for the moisture.

“It’s kind of hard now,” she said, “but you have to think of the green grass in the spring.”