ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A major winter storm wreaked havoc on pre-holiday travel across New Mexico Monday as rare blizzard conditions shut down virtually all major highways in the northeastern quarter of the state, stranding an unknown number of motorists in whiteout conditions that were expected to rage through the night.
More than 150 miles of Interstate 25 between Santa Fe and the Colorado border and all routes headed east from Raton toward the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles were shut down late Monday afternoon. Farther south, Interstate 40 was closed from Santa Rosa to the Texas state line. State police said they expected the roads to stay closed throughout the night.
An unknown number of motorists were stuck along rural highways like U.S. Route 64 and U.S. 54 when blizzard conditions first hit Monday morning, said Clayton police dispatcher Cindy Blackwell.
"It's really bad here," she said. "The phones are ringing off the hook" with calls from stranded drivers. "All I can do is answer the phones and call the state police."
By late afternoon, state police spokesman Robert McDonald said he didn't know how many drivers had gotten caught on the highways but that he thought most had been rescued.
Interstate 25 was closed from the Raton Pass on the Colorado border south of Las Vegas because of zero visibility and snow drifts, forcing motorists to take refuge.
"We are getting very full," said Chicky Gomez, a desk clerk at the Holiday Inn Express in Raton said. "It's blowing pretty strong and it's really cold."
There were no rooms left, however, to the south in Las Vegas, where Earl Pierce and his wife Imelda were spending the night at the Comfort Inn. Pierce said the couple were traveling from Sun City Festival, Ariz., to Loveland, Colo. to visit their grandchildren for Christmas. He said they first heard about the storm in Albuquerque.
"Last night on the news we seen that there was supposed to be a storm," he said. "They said it would probably hit around noon. So we left thinking we was going to get ahead of it but it caught us here at Las Vegas."
Pierce said the roads weren't too bad before they were directed off the highway, "but the ole wind is blowing it's seems about 90 miles an hour."
He said he and his wife felt lucky to be safe in a hotel.
"I was just talking to a gentleman who didn't have no rear glass because he got sideswiped by a semi-truck," Pierce said.
I-25 originally was closed just from Raton to Las Vegas. But the closing was extended south to Santa Fe late Monday afternoon in part because Las Vegas was full, state police said.
At Pino's truck stop in Las Vegas, Joe Padilla said the place was crowded with truckers and passengers from a bus that was headed from El Paso to Colorado.
"We are open 24 hours so they will probably camp out here," he said as a second bus pulled in. "Our parking lot is full."
Most roads headed west and south from Raton were still open, although highway crews reported intermittent closings due to accidents and snowpacked, icy and generally hazardous driving conditions all the way to Santa Fe and Los Alamos, where schools and the Los Alamos National Laboratory were closed.
No major accidents or serious injuries had been reported Monday afternoon, McDonald said -- "just a lot of people sliding off the road" -- but the storm was expected to rage through the night.
"It's just getting started in the Eastern Plains," National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Shoemake said in a conference call with emergency management officials Monday afternoon. "The northeast part of the state is expecting some really harsh conditions. ... It is really expected to take a hit."
Blizzard warnings were posted from east of Albuquerque and north as cold temperatures and heavy snow combined with wind gusts up to 60 mph. Forecasts called for the northeast corner of the state to get 10 to 20 inches of snow, while Santa Fe and Los Alamos were expected to see 3 to 5 inches.
The storm dumped more than a foot of snow in Grants and 24 inches in Catron County as it moved in from the West overnight Monday. And Monday afternoon it was also stretching southeast into Roswell.
Heavy wet snow fell intermittently throughout the day Monday in Albuquerque, but the roads were mostly clear. Albuquerque was expected to be spared the brunt of the storm, although Shoemake said the foothills could see as much as 4 inches.
It was just the latest in a series of winter storms that have brought welcome moisture to drought-stricken New Mexico this month. Ski areas in particular welcomed yet another big dump of snow in advance of the Christmas holidays.
"It's snowing really hard and the wind is blowing," said Taos Ski Valley marketing manager Adriana Blake. "There are all kinds of people out here skiing today."
She said the resort got three inches overnight Sunday, giving it 53 inches for the month -- the most of any major ski resort in the country.
"That's more than we had all season last season," she said. "Hopefully it happens and then it settles down so people can get here for Christmas."