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Blizzard conditions close roads in Southern Plains

DALLAS (AP)--A major spring blizzard plodding eastward over the Southern Plains shut down major highways March 27 and paralyzed the region as residents braced for up to a foot of snow, freezing 45-mph winds and massive snowdrifts.

Schools and government offices were closed, and hundreds of travelers were stranded by the storm, which left some areas under a coat of ice. The snowfall was expected to be unprecedented for this time of year in Oklahoma, and the National Guard was called out in the Texas Panhandle, where snowdrifts as high as 11 feet and up to a foot of snowfall were predicted before the storm moves on March 28.

"It's blowing furiously," said Jerry Billington of Faith City Ministries in downtown Amarillo, which was under whiteout conditions. The 200-bed shelter was one of several setting up extra beds and encouraging homeless people to come in off the street.

There were several accidents in the area, including jackknifed tractor-trailers, Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Wayne Williams said in Amarillo, which is about 365 miles northwest of Dallas. Authorities shut down all major highways around Dalhart in the northwest corner of the Panhandle.

At least two weather-related traffic deaths were reported, in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Ice built up all over southeast Kansas, with a quarter-inch coat reported in Arkansas City. Freezing rain pelted the Wichita area and heavy snow and 40 mph winds created dangerous driving conditions in the Dodge City area.

The weather service forecast as much as 16 inches of snow in northwest Oklahoma, with about 5 inches predicted in Oklahoma City. Gov. Brad Henry declared a state of emergency March 27 for much of the state.

Winds were strongest near the Colorado-Kansas border, said Randy Gray of the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colo. Sections of three southeast Colorado highways totaling nearly 150 miles were shut down March 27.

Rural electric providers reported about 5,000 homes and businesses without power in Oklahoma, where wind gusts were as high as 50 mph. More than 2,000 Oklahoma Gas and Electric customers in the Norman area were without power March 27, and outages also were reported in several Kansas towns.

Earlier in the week the storm dumped nearly a foot and a half of snow in the Denver area, creating havoc at airports and on highways that lingered March 27 as a swath of far southeastern Colorado remained under a blizzard warning. Many schools and offices remained closed because of icy roads and unplowed streets.

Three of four roads into the southeast Colorado town of Springfield were closed when blowing snow reduced visibility to near zero.

"It was awful. Just blowing real bad," said Kelly Mason, a worker at Love's Travel Stop in the town of about 1,400. "Not a lot's moving around here."

As many as 400 travelers spent the night at Denver International Airport after airlines canceled about 500 flights March 26. Air operations resumed March 27, with dominant DIA carriers United, Southwest and Frontier airlines returning to regular schedules with few cancellations.

Eastern Colorado ranchers checked on their herds, which were in the midst of calving when the storm hit.

A series of heavy storms in December 2006 and January 2007 killed an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 head of cattle in southeastern Colorado. Cattle that survived gave birth to stillborn calves because of the stressful winter, compounding losses.

This week's storm will "have some impact, but it wasn't what we call a cow-killer," said Mike Eisenbart, who has 140 head of cattle on his ranch in Kit Carson County about 140 miles east of Denver.

The American Red Cross said 285 people spent March 26 night in shelters south of Pueblo because a 40-mile stretch of I-25 was closed in southern Colorado. It has since reopened.

Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency March 26 and activated the National Guard. Troops rescued three stranded motorists and cleared a path through stalled vehicles for an emergency blood delivery, Capt. Elena O'Bryan said.



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