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Interstates reopen in Kansas, Texas as winter storm that socked the Great Plains heads east
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) ' Fierce winds and snow made travel through the Great Plains difficult Tuesday, although highway officials reopened portions of several major interstates that closed during the worst of the storm.
Interstate 70, the main east-west artery through Kansas, and Interstate 40, the main road through the Texas Panhandle, reopened around noon. Texas officials had previously told drivers to stay off the roads in the Panhandle so that crews would have a clear path to remove snow and ice from roads.
New Mexico also reopened its section of I-40.
Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Ben Gardner said the patrol dealt with dozens of accidents in which motorists slid off highways Tuesday morning.
"We had ice-covered roads, covered by snow packed on top," he said.
Eastbound lanes along a 70-mile stretch of I-70 had been closed, starting in Colby. In Hays, drivers who managed to get ahead of the closing still left the interstate earlier than planned, booking three dozen rooms at the Fairfield Inn in a mere 20 minutes Monday night. Greg Boughton, a hydrologist from Cheyenne, Wyo., and his family quit traveling in the afternoon after their SUV nearly slid into a ditch.
"It wasn't worth risking it," he said Tuesday, as he, his wife and their two children prepared to get back on the road, heading east toward family in Tulsa.
About 10 inches of snow fell in western Kansas before dawn Tuesday and several more inches along with strong wind gusts were expected, National Weather Service meteorologist Marc Russell said.
"We're talking about whiteout conditions," he said.
Schools in Manhattan, Kan., canceled classes for the day, anticipating several inches of snow. Topeka was pelted by a cold rain, which was expected to turn to a wintry mix of light sleet and snow later in the day, though forecasters expected the storm to become less potent as it moved northeast, toward the Great Lakes.
In Hays, some guests at the Fairfield Inn were extending their stays an extra day, said Randy Beck, who was working the front desk.
Heather Haltli, 29, and her husband were traveling from their home at Hill Air Force Base in Utah to attend a family funeral in Abilene, Texas, but the storm slowed them down so badly that they had to take refuge at the Comfort Inn in Garden City, Kan.
"We've been traveling about 20 miles per hour all the way from Denver," Haltli said Tuesday. She said they had passed up to 15 wrecks including rollovers, upside down cars and jackknifed trucks as they drove through Colorado.
"I don't think we'll be able to make the funeral, but we'll keep going," she said.
The storm was blamed for at least six deaths Monday, authorities said. Four people were killed when their vehicle collided with a pickup truck in part of eastern New Mexico where blizzard-like conditions are rare, and a prison guard and inmate died when a prison van crashed on an icy road in eastern Colorado.
The late-autumn snowstorm lumbered into the region Monday, turning roads to ice and reducing visibility to zero.
In northern New Mexico, snow and ice closed all the roads from Raton to the Texas and Oklahoma borders about 90 miles away. Hotels in Clayton, N.M., just east of where the three states touch, filled up. Multiple highways remained closed early Tuesday.
Bill Cook, who works at the Best Western in Clayton, said he hadn't seen such a storm since the 1970s, when cattle had to be airlifted with helicopters and the National Guard was called in to help out.
The storm came after much of the country had a relatively mild fall. With the exception of the October snowstorm blamed for 29 deaths on the East Coast, there's been little rain or snow. Many of the areas hit Monday enjoyed relatively balmy 60-degree temperatures just 24 hours earlier.
Associated Press writers Jeri Clausing in Albuquerque, N.M.; Roxana Hegeman, in Wichita; Terry Wallace in Dallas; Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Texas; Maria Fisher in Kansas City, Mo.; and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.