Coloradans returning to work and school after record blizzard; 31.8-inch total in Denver

Friday, March 21st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) -- After two restless nights on a cot at Denver International Airport and paper napkin sponge baths in the restrooms, Erin Maloney says her demands have become more modest.

"Even a wash cloth would be nice," said the Chicago resident, who was among 1,500 travelers who spent Thursday night at the airport, stranded by Colorado's worst blizzard in 90 years.

But with ample staff at ticket counters and security checkpoints Friday, airport officials worked to send travelers on their way. Airline ticket counters were fully staffed for the first time since the storm began.

"Things are moving well this morning," Denver International Airport spokeswoman Sally Covington said.

The storm, which began Tuesday, dropped up to 81/2 feet of snow over a swath of nearly 500 miles in Colorado and southern Wyoming, affecting more than 3.5 million people. At least six people died in both states, including a skier who was caught Thursday in an avalanche near Keystone.

The airport reopened three runways Thursday and dozens of flights departed after planes had been grounded for 32 hours. Covington said the airport hoped to open the fourth of its five runways later Friday.

Liz and John Silbaugh and their three daughters stood in a ticket counter line Friday, hoping for a standby flight to Tampa, Fla., for a family reunion. Their flight Wednesday was canceled.

"I figured we'd spend three hours in the airport and go home. But we weren't doing anything anyway. We were supposed to be on vacation," Liz Silbaugh said, juggling a baggage cart and her 41/2-year-old twin girls and their 2-year-old sister.

Officials expected material to arrive Saturday to temporarily repair the airport's tent-like roof, which tore with the weight of the snow.

The heavy, wet snow also caved in roofs and awnings at a Denver nightclub and a community center in the mountain town of Nederland. The Denver Fire Department inspected 200 structural collapses reported at homes and businesses.

City crews used garbage trucks to haul mounds of snow and broken tree limbs. Businesses and schools reopened, but many residents were forced to remain home because streets packed with drifts made passage nearly impossible. Government agencies prepared to address backlogs of courts cases and meet social services needs.

"We've had a lot of digging out to do," Boulder County spokesman Jim Burrus said. "People have been snowed in four days straight and we need to get those folks out and in the world again."

Most roadways reopened, including Interstate 70 from Denver west to Frisco in the mountains. The 60-mile stretch was closed because of avalanche danger, but all lanes in both directions were reopened by Friday morning.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had warned that avalanche danger along the Front Range was extreme, including in Rocky Mountain National Park where 81/2 feet of snow fell.

"They've had a lot of work to do getting those roads safe for the public," he said. Snow flurries began again in the high country, but weren't expected to last.

Agricultural officials, meanwhile, celebrated the massive blizzard for a region entering its fourth year of drought.

The snowpack, which provides most of Colorado's water when it melts and runs into streams, rivers and dams, grew to 104 percent of the 30-year average in the South Platte River basin, up from 78 percent at the start of the week. The basin supplies water to Denver and many of the drought-battered farmers and ranchers in eastern Colorado.

"This is a billion-dollar snowfall," Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament said Thursday. "I'm looking out the window and seeing the water and all the snow and, oh, man, how could you make it better?"

The National Weather Service said 31.8 inches of snow accumulated in Denver, the heaviest snowfall since a December 1913 storm that dumped 471/2 inches of snow on the city over five days.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center