WICHITA, Kan. — Blizzard warnings went up across wide sections of the Southwest and Great Plains Monday, two days before the official start of winter, as a major snow storm threatened to play havoc with holiday travel.
Warnings forecasting snowfalls of up to 18 inches stretched across the region as the storm barreled toward parts of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. In southern Colorado, blizzard conditions were expected to drop between 8 and 16 inches of snow and threatened to close Interstate 25 from New Mexico into the Colorado.
In southwestern Kansas, winds of up to 45 mph were expected to create whiteout conditions and high drifts that could block roads.
"We are preparing," said Kansas Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Swartz. "We've had a few storms in the northwest, but we are fully stocked with sand and salt in all our regions. We're in good shape."
The storm was expected to also disrupt holiday travel on major interstates in the region, including Interstate 35 in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, interstates 25 and 40 in New Mexico and Interstate 70 across central Kansas. Motorists were urged to check road conditions before beginning any long journeys.
The storm follows a surprisingly mild Sunday across the region. Thunderstorms were moving across Kansas Monday, with conditions expected to deteriorate as the day progressed and temperatures fell.
In New Mexico, heavy snow and high winds forced the closure of U.S. Route 64 between Raton and Clayton, making driving conditions difficult in the mountains and across northern parts of the state. Santa Fe schools and Los Alamos National Laboratory were closed because of the storm. Crews were plowing and pouring salt across roads that were expected to see up to 15 inches of snow.
In the Oklahoma Panhandle, where residents enjoyed relatively balmy 60-degree conditions on Sunday, a National Weather Service blizzard warning said up to 16 inches of snow was possible before the storm exits the region Tuesday.
Heavy snow began falling in Cimarron County on Monday morning. Vicki Roberts, who owns the Black Mesa Bed and Breakfast in Kenton, Okla., said about 1 ½ inches of snow settled after about an hour.
Roberts said she expects to be stuck inside at least through Wednesday if a blizzard slams the area as forecast.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation said Sunday that crews would work around the clock to keep roads clear, and that they have about 130,000 tons of a salt and sand mixture at their disposal.
The precipitation also could help 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."
Long haul truck driver Frank Pringle, at a Love's Travel Stop in Amarillo said he intended to go as far west as road conditions would allow Monday. His biggest worry was with 4-wheel drive cars because "they will shoot past you and cut you off and you have to hit your breaks. And hitting breaks in the snow is not a good thing."
Clayton, N.M., Police Chief Scott Julian said his town is expecting more than a foot of snow. He is worried the most about drivers passing through town to Colorado or Texas who might decide to take their chances with the storm only to find that "they get ten miles out of town, they can't see in front of them, and they get stranded out there."
AP reporters Rochelle Hines in Oklahoma City, Tim Raths in Washington, D.C., Maria Sudekum Fisher in Kansas City, Mo., and John Milburn in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this story.