Storm shuts roads in Rockies; Utah blizzard looms
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A hectic, hard-hitting storm shut down highways in Idaho and Wyoming and threatened much of Utah with a blizzard Wednesday as travelers in the Rockies dealt with canceled flights and windy, snow-covered roads on the day before Thanksgiving.
Numerous schools, governments and businesses in Utah closed hours earlier than normal Tuesday because of the storm, with state traffic officials warning the evening commute could take four times longer than usual.
Highway officials told holiday travelers earlier in the day to get out of town now or risk being stranded on Thanksgiving.
The storm crippled much of the Pacific Northwest Monday and Tuesday, and at least three deaths in Washington state have been blamed on the storm, including a man struck and killed outside his car Monday night on snowy Interstate 5 in Tacoma. On Wednesday, the temperature at Sea-Tac Airport dropped to 14 degrees, a 25-year low.
Officials in Portland, Ore., also were investigating whether a man whose body was found along the Willamette River died from the cold.
The powerful system moving across the West on Wednesday was expected to push a strong cold front south and east across New Mexico, where wind speeds were to increase steadily through the morning. In northern Arizona, drivers were warned to prepare for wind gusts of 25 to 35 mph with drastically reduced visibility in blowing snow.
The National Weather Service had issued a blizzard warning for Utah, where Interstate 84 into Idaho and Interstate 15 were temporarily shut down in northern Utah because of windy, snowy conditions that led two tractor-trailers to jackknife and block traffic.
Even once the roads were reopened, visibility was still very limited there and elsewhere in the state as many commuters made their way home on snow-covered roads.
In the western part of Utah on Tuesday, empty eastbound semitrailers on Interstate 80 were being held near the Nevada line to prevent them from tipping over in the windy salt flats.
In Wyoming, a 40 mile-section of Interstate 80 near the Utah border was closed, and a large section of Interstate 15 in Idaho – from Idaho Falls to the Montana border – was also shut down.
In Seattle, icy roads kept airline crews from getting to the airport, and people who missed their flights because of the dangerous drive were trying to rebook on already crowded planes.
Of the nearly 300 flights scheduled to take off from Salt Lake City International Airport Tuesday evening, nine had been canceled, although it wasn’t immediately clear if all of those were caused by the storm.
Even cold-hardened Alaskans were complaining about the weather, with freezing rain making travel hazardous if not impossible. Fairbanks was among the hardest-hit; schools closed and most government agencies and military bases told nonessential workers to stay home.
“I don’t think the roads can get much worse,” said David Gibbs, emergency operations director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Andy Haner, a weather service meteorologist in Seattle, said the storm blew down from Alaska before turning toward the Northern Rockies. Forecasters say western Washington temperatures should rise above freezing for Thanksgiving, while eastern Washington faces a chance of snow and temperatures below freezing through the weekend.
“Sometimes we call them ‘inside sliders’ because they slide down the Inside Passage from Alaska,” he said.
The tiny central Washington town of Waterville became a refuge when the blizzard blasted across the scattered wheat fields and sagebrush along U.S. Highway 2.
“We got sideways snow. We’ve got snow that’s going up, stuck up under things. Snow is everywhere, because it’s been so windy,” Dave Lundgren, owner of the Waterville Historic Hotel, said Tuesday. “We’re definitely going to be looking for inside things to do.”
The Washington State Patrol Tuesday launched a plane equipped with a heat-seeking camera to look for stranded motorists from Seattle south to Olympia. It said that in the 24 hours ending at 10 a.m., troopers had responded to 1,557 collisions and 1,274 disabled motorists statewide.
Much of Northwest will get a cold but brief break to dig out and maybe brave travel for the Thanksgiving holiday before more snow that could arrive by Wednesday night.