Rain, snow hit parts of West
Friday, December 31, 2010
BELLEMONT, Ariz. (AP) — A winter storm pummeled the western U.S. on Thursday with fierce wind gusts, heavy rain and up to 2 feet of snow, closing freeways, forcing people from their homes in a California town and dumping a snowy mix of precipitation on the edges of Phoenix.
Nevada was blasted with frigid winds, an area of western Washington saw whiteout conditions, and strong winds created snow dunes on rooftops, front yards and streets across mountainous areas of Arizona.
Snow and ice forced an hours-long closure of Interstates 40 and 17, the two major thoroughfares in northern Arizona, stranding motorists south of Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. People in Phoenix were stunned at the sight of snow-type flurries that the National Weather Service said were a combination of hail and snow that melts before it hits the ground.
Drivers wanting to know how to get around the storms overwhelmed an Arizona hotline that provides automated updates on road conditions. State Department of Transportation spokesman Timothy Tait said the line took in 60,000 calls in an 8-hour span Thursday morning.
Dorothy Brooks of Dallas was creeping along I-40 at 20 mph on Thursday on her way to Las Vegas, passing vehicles stuck on the side of the road, when she pulled into a Bellemont gas station to wait out the storm.
“It’s devastating,” she said above the cry of a 9-month-old baby she was pushing through the aisles. “You can’t call Mother Nature anyway. You never know when she’s going to burst out.”
The Silverton Mountain resort in Colorado reported 22 inches of snow, but only about 120 people were on the mountain because officials closed highways leading to the ski area for avalanche control and because of adverse conditions, resort co-founder Jen Brill said.
R.A. Burrell of Colorado Springs left home around 3 a.m. to avoid getting stuck on the way to the extreme ski area and made it before the lift started running.
“I thought we’d really just come on a magical day, which is what it turned out to be,” he said during a break from making turns. “We just got lucky.”
The National Weather Service said snow could fall at a rate close to an inch an hour starting Thursday evening in the Denver area, which usually has around 25 inches of snow by this time of the season but had just 1.5 inches before Thursday.
Meanwhile, southwestern New Mexico was being hit with blizzard conditions that were forecast to continue through midnight Thursday. Winds of up to 65 mph, heavy snow and rapidly falling temperatures made travel difficult if not impossible, forecasters said.
Phoenix was bracing for freezing overnight temperatures, a rarity in the desert city. Inmates housed at the city’s Tent City jail facility were being issued extra blankets and pink thermal underwear — part of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s odd method for punishing prisoners.
Snow also forced California transportation officials to close Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where winds were gusting to more than 40 mph. The freeway eventually reopened.
The California Highway Patrol reported downed trees on various Los Angeles-area freeways and streets. One gust north of Los Angeles was clocked at 94 mph.
An overflowing irrigation canal in Lamont, about 75 miles north of Los Angeles, forced Kern County authorities to call for the evacuation of 120 homes. Fire spokesman Sean Collins said the call went out at 6:30 a.m. Thursday and it was possible the evacuation could be lifted in the afternoon as water receded.
In the snow-laden Sierra Nevada, search teams found the body of a woman who disappeared while snowboarding at a Lake Tahoe-area resort, sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Ausnow said.
Shawnte Marie Willis, 25, became separated from friends Tuesday at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, and bad weather had hindered the search.