Winter storm could snarl Tuesday’s commute

12/19/2011 5:00 AM

12/20/2011 5:16 PM

A powerful winter storm that stranded motorists in whiteout conditions in New Mexico brought a widespread blizzard as it moved through Kansas on Monday, and weather officials warned it could make the morning commute treacherous in the Wichita area today.

More than a foot of snow was expected in portions of southwest and central Kansas, and state officials said travel in those regions would be “difficult, if not impossible” late Monday into today.

Wichita will see a wintry mix start at about the same time as the morning commute, said Ken Cook, a meteorologist with the local National Weather Service office. Light snow will move in by late morning and continue much of the day – adding up to about an inch of total accumulation, Cook said.

“Wichita, in this storm, is right in the middle of the transition zone,” Cook said. “If it’s a couple degrees warmer, it’ll be all rain. If it’s a couple degrees colder, it’ll be significantly more snow.”

Hutchinson, for example, is projected to receive 6 to 8 inches of snow. Some parts of central and far southwest Kansas could receive 14 inches or more, forecasters said on Monday.

Sustained winds of 25 to 30 mph are likely to occur during much of the event, with periods of wind gusts between 35 and 45 mph. These wind speeds would produce widespread blowing and drifting snow and “intermittent whiteout conditions,” the Kansas Department of Emergency Management reported in a statement.

School districts in western and central Kansas were already canceling classes as the storm arrived Monday, and cancellations have already been announced for Tuesday.

The Midway Kansas chapter of the American Red Cross was poised to offer assistance to areas hit hard by the storm, spokesman James Williams said.

In northern New Mexico, all roads from Raton to the Texas and Oklahoma borders about 90 miles east were closed, and an unknown number of motorists were stuck in a blizzard along rural highways, Clayton police dispatcher Cindy Blackwell said. A portion of I-25, the major route heading northeast of Santa Fe into Colorado, was among the roads closed, and even where highways remained open, some drivers were forced to pull off.

“The phones are ringing off the hook” with calls from stranded drivers, Blackwell said. “All I can do is answer the phones and call the state police.”

Vicki Roberts, the owner of the Black Mesa Bed and Breakfast in Kenton, said snow was falling rapidly and high winds had cut visibility in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

“I can’t even see the mesa,” Roberts said as she peered from the window of her establishment at the foot of Black Mesa, which at 4,973 feet is the highest point in Oklahoma. Forecasts called for the area to get up to 16 inches before the storm moves out Tuesday.

The storm follows a surprisingly mild Sunday across the region. In the Oklahoma Panhandle, residents enjoyed relatively balmy 60-degree temperatures. That changed quickly, and Roberts said Monday morning that she expected to be stuck inside at least through Wednesday if a blizzard was as bad as forecast.

“I have a mail route and I’m not going. You just don’t get out in this,” Roberts said. “We’ll be socked in here. If we lose power we’ll just read a book in front of the fireplace.”

There were no guests at her inn, so she wasn’t worried about them being stuck.

The precipitation from the winter storm has folks hoping it will ease a drought that has plagued Texas for more than year.

“You’re not going to find too many people who have to put in winter wheat in this area complaining,” said Tabatha Seymore, observing program leader for the National Weather Service in Amarillo, Texas. “It’s just wonderful to have this moisture to sit on top of the crop and melt. It’s fantastic for them.”

Amarillo had rain Monday morning, and snow was supposed to start in the afternoon with several inches of accumulation by Tuesday morning.

Long-haul truck driver Frank Pringle stopped at a Love’s Travel Stop in Amarillo but said he intended to go as far west as road conditions would allow Monday. His biggest worry was with four-wheel-drive cars because “they will shoot past you and cut you off and you have to hit your brakes. And hitting brakes in the snow is not a good thing.”

Thunderstorms rumbled through Wichita on Monday as the snowstorm moved into western portions of Kansas. State road crews in Oklahoma and Kansas will be working around the clock to clear roads in the storm, officials said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Wichita Eagle is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service