By STEVEN K. PAULSON, Associated Press
DENVER (AP) — The most powerful storm of the winter season pounded Colorado and parts of neighboring states on Friday, creating whiteout conditions on the eastern plains, cancelling more than 600 flights in Denver and closing hundreds of miles of highway between major Colorado cities and the Kansas border.
Snow piled up to 6 feet on some Rocky Mountain foothills — and it was a welcome boost to several ski resorts that have suffered below-average snowfall this season. But while Echo Mountain and other resorts close to Denver celebrated up to 40 inches of powder, the storm only dusted larger resorts, like Vail, with a few inches in central Colorado's Rockies.
"It's been fantastic," said Scott Gales, a spokesman for Echo Mountain about 25 miles west of Denver. "We only had about 26 or 27 inches this morning. Now we're over 40 and it's still snowing at the rate of an inch or two an hour."
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued warnings for slopes east of the Continental Divide until noon Saturday, saying 2 feet or more of new snow could easily overrun the weak, existing snow pack.
Blizzard conditions hit Colorado's eastern plains, with 5-foot drifts in parts of Elbert County. Severe weather struck parts of southeast Wyoming, western Kansas and Nebraska, where a band of heavy snow stalled, dumping nearly 13 inches in some spots.
Icy snow made driving difficult as far south as New Mexico.
A winter storm warning remained in effect for a broad swath of the western and central plains from northeastern Colorado, across most of Nebraska, and into northeastern Kansas and southeastern Iowa. A blizzard warning was lifted in Colorado but remained for four counties in western Nebraska.
Snow was still falling Friday night, with another 2 to 4 inches expected in Denver and northeastern Colorado. It was expected to taper off by Saturday as the storm moved east.
Earlier Friday, near-zero visibility forced officials to close all 160 miles of westbound Interstate 70 between the Kansas state line and Denver. A 70-mile stretch of eastbound I-70 from Denver to the plains town of Limon (LYE-min) also was closed. Highway officials said the freeway would likely remain closed overnight Friday.
Agate, a small town on the closed section of I-70, reported more than 2 feet of snow by Friday night and winds gusting to 25 mph. Other towns on the eastern plains reported more than a foot of snow and similar wind speeds.
Parts of I-70 were down to one lane in the foothills west of Denver, and chain laws were in effect throughout the mountains.
Major state highways stretching eastward from Denver, Colorado Springs and other front range cities also were closed because of blizzard conditions in the plains counties of Kit Carson, Elbert, Lincoln, Cheyenne and El Paso. The closures were expected to remain until Saturday.
"There's nowhere to go," said Cindy Williams, who works at a truck stop in Limon.
Most travelers apparently heeded storm and blizzard warnings. Only a few trucks were involved in crashes — none serious — on I-70, and Denver traffic was relatively smooth, said Gene Towne of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
"The accident situation hasn't really been that bad except the usual fender-benders we have during the evening commute," Towne said.
Some 600 flights were canceled at Denver International Airport, which averages 1,700 flights daily. Southwest Airlines, a key carrier at the airport, cancelled all of its flights for most of the day but resumed them late Friday.
Near Denver, snowfall amounts ranged from 3 feet in Evergreen to 18 inches near Boulder and 14 inches in the capital city itself. Colorado lawmakers stayed home Friday, and classes were canceled in many school districts and at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
For ranchers on Colorado's eastern plains, the storm hit as some cattle were giving birth.
"Anything that was calving we moved in the barn," said Skylar Houston, a partner at the Aristocrat Angus Ranch about 35 miles north of Denver. Ranch hands had to feed other cattle because they couldn't graze through 6-inch snow, Houston said.
In Nebraska, the storm didn't slow shoppers at Ewoldt's Grocery in Thedford, about 300 miles northwest of Omaha. If anything, it was busier Friday than on most days, and for good reason, said clerk Velma Burns.