Central Rockies struggle under up to 6 feet of snow; storm called worst since '82

Wednesday, March 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) _ Denver's worst blizzard in at least two decades shut down the city for a second day and closed one of the nation's busiest airports, stranding thousands of passengers and ripping the terminal's tent-like roof. Even letter carriers stayed home.

The storm dumped up to 6 feet of wet, heavy snow in the mountains and paralyzed a large swath of Colorado and Wyoming that is home to more than 3.5 million people. It forced officials to close parts of Interstates 70, 80 and 25, and National Guard troops were sent to rescue stranded motorists.

The storm, which lumbered into Colorado with rain turning to snow Monday and Tuesday, was heading slowly east and expected to taper off later Wednesday, one of the final days of winter. A blizzard warning remained in effect from the Colorado-Wyoming line to New Mexico.

The snow was blamed for at least one traffic death, recorded in Wyoming. Interstate 70 remained closed from the Rockies almost to the Kansas line. To the north in Wyoming, Interstates 25 and 80 remained closed, isolating Cheyenne and other communities.

Around the region, gusts whipped snow into drifts that blocked streets and driveways, turning abandoned cars and trucks into marshmallowy mounds.

Laramie County Sheriff Danny Glick did not even try to get to work from his home on the prairie about 15 miles east of town.

"I can walk on top of my barn," he said. Stranded inside were chickens, geese - and the heavy equipment he needed to use to dig through the 9-foot drifts.

Instead, he turned to an old-fashioned method. "It's called a shovel," he said.

The Colorado National Guard sent 21 Humvees to rescue stranded motorists. In some cities, police ticketed motorists who didn't have a good reason to be out.

Denver security manager Keith Moore waited two hours for a bus that never showed up, finally catching a ride with a snowplow driver.

"It was great," Moore said. "I got to smoke and everything."

Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., was stranded near the Denver airport but found the storm's silver lining: "We've had such a terrible drought, and this will help with our water situation."

Both states needed the moisture after months of drought conditions.

Travelers filled up motels along the closed interstates, and hundreds of truck drivers slept in their rigs.

The storm has dumped more than 2.5 feet of snow on Denver since Monday. In the mountains west of Denver, wind swept 6-foot snow accumulations into 8-foot drifts. The American Red Cross turned four public buildings into shelters for 350 motorists in Idaho Springs, 35 miles west of Denver.

Mary Courtney Ning's car was stuck in more than 4 feet of snow in Evergreen, in the foothills about 25 miles west of Denver. Residents pooled food and spent hours shoveling, she said. ``We got to know our neighbors,'' she said.

Almost 1 1/2 feet of wet, heavy flakes fell Wednesday at Denver International Airport and drifted to 4 feet, ripping the facility's fabric roof and forcing it to remain closed.

About 3,700 travelers who spent the night sleeping on the floor, couches and cots were moved to a separate concourse as a precaution after a tear several hundred feet long was discovered in the Teflon-coated, Fiberglas roof of the main terminal.

"This is a record-breaking storm that now is a roof breaker," said assistant airport manager Amy Bourgeron.

Among the travelers stuck there was the University of Vermont men's basketball team, headed to Salt Lake City for its first-ever NCAA tournament. They were slated to play Arizona on Thursday.

The storm brought back memories of the December 1982 blizzard, which dropped 2 feet of snow on Denver in 24 hours, making major streets impassable for several days.

The Colorado Legislature canceled its session Wednesday, and most other government offices and businesses - including post offices - were also closed.

At least 200 people were stranded at the Greyhound bus station in downtown Denver. The roof collapsed on a downtown nightclub and a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in northeast Denver, the Fire Department said.

The 16 inches of snow that fell on the Cheyenne airport Tuesday broke a single-day record for that date; the previous record of 11.5 inches dated to 1979.

"What we're seeing now is the wind as far as keeping it messy," said Bill Parker, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Cheyenne.

At Winter Park, the closest thing to a neighborhood ski resort for Denver residents, 6 feet of snow in two days proved almost too much of a good thing. Twelve of the 19 main lifts had to stay closed, and employees were running ragged trying to keep the parking lots and walkways clear, spokeswoman Joan Christensen said.

"I never knew there was this much snow in the world," Christensen said.
"There's so much snow they even have to remove it from the lift lines."