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NM hit with winter blast, closing schools, I-40

By Russell Contreras

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 5 2011 3:21 p.m. MST

Motorists head north on an icy stretch of Interstate 25 near Bernalillo, N.M., after the state was slammed with severe weather Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. Heavy snow, up to a foot in some parts of New Mexico, closed dozens of schools Monday and forced authorities around the state to respond to a number of minor accidents. A winter storm warning remains in effect in New Mexico until Tuesday.

Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A severe winter blast struck most of New Mexico on Monday, closing hundreds of schools and shutting down a major highway from Albuquerque to Gallup that forced motorists to seek emergency shelter.

The storm was the third to hit the state recently and spread heavy snow throughout parts of northern and southern New Mexico. It forced school districts to close or end classes early, as motorists struggled with icy roads during the morning commute.

Las Cruces police reported a handful of crashes caused by fog and black ice around Interstate 25 and Highway 70, and state police responded to accidents along Interstate 40. No injuries were reported so far.

State officials closed both directions of Interstate 40 from Albuquerque to Gallup — part of the historic Route 66 — after blowing snow caused near-zero visibility. State police redirected motorists to nearby casinos and motels.

Julia Pardue, a front desk attendant at the Super 8 hotel in Grants, said a number of stranded motorists got rooms for the rest of the day after Interstate 40 was closed rather than wait for the highway to reopen.

"We got quite a few," he said. "A lot of people just didn't want to be on the roads."

Parts of Interstate 40 in Albuquerque and Santa Rosa also were closed. State police did not know when the highway would reopen.

In addition, a section of Interstate 25 just south of Socorro was closed after several tractor-trailers jackknifed.

State officials opened the New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque for the truckers stranded by the highway closures.

Meteorologists it wasn't heavy snow that forced highway closures but rather high winds brushing the light snow across roads making visibility difficult. Some areas, like in Tajique, saw two foot snow drifts.

The severe weather in the morning convinced the University of New Mexico to canceled classes, and all Bernalillo County courts were ordered closed for the day. The planned lighting of the Christmas Tree in Santa Fe also was postponed.

Kerry Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said most of the heavy snowfall has finished by Monday afternoon and just around an inch or two was expected throughout most of New Mexico. However, Jones said residents should expect "bitter cold" weather with temperatures 15 below zero in some parts. "It's going to be a very cold night across the board," Jones said.

Severe weather even brought snow to southern New Mexico — a region usually spared the worst of winter blasts.

New Mexico Department of Transportation highway crews worked Monday on clearing snow and salting icy roadways in the region, especially around Lordsburg, Silver City, Socorro, Magdalena and Truth or Consequences. More than 700 employees and 500 pieces of equipment will be available to keep state routes clear and passable.

"The NMDOT is out in full force to assist law enforcement with road closures, while treating the roadways in order to secure a safe roadway for the traveling public," said District Engineer Frank Guzman told the Las Cruces Sun-News. "Crews will continue to work throughout the evening in to the weekend as this storm passes through our region."

In northern New Mexico, transportation officials urged motorists to drive with caution through the Raton Pass.

The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management advised residents to avoid unnecessary travel and prepare their homes for even colder temperatures.

"It is important that individuals take the necessary steps to protect themselves, their families, and homes," DHSEM Secretary Michael Duvall said.

The National Weather Service in Albuquerque placed most of the state under a winter weather warning into Tuesday due to the extremely cold temperatures, and blowing and drifting snow. Temperatures were expected to drop Tuesday to single digits or below zero across much of northern and central New Mexico due to an arctic blast.

Jones said temperatures will gradually warm throughout the week.

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