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Blizzard Conditions Shut Down Travel on Plains

March 24, 1987

Undated (AP) _ An unusually strong spring snowstorm shut down part of the Plains on Tuesday with blinding wind-driven snow and drifts up to 8 feet high closing highways and schools, stranding travelers and pulling down power lines serving thousands of people.

Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden declared a disaster for the western third of his state, where National Guardsmen already had been rescuing people and hauling supplies and had opened armories for stranded travelers.

Nearly all roads in western Kansas were closed, with drifts 5 to 7 feet high, and little attempt was made to clear them because of the unrelenting wind and blizzard conditions, the state Highway Patrol said.

As many as 10,000 homes in northwest Kansas were without electrical power, with the road conditions hampering efforts of utility crews to restore service, utility officials said.

Early spring snowstorms are not rare in western Kansas ″but to have one of this intensity is unusual,″ said Jim Johnson of the National Weather Service in Dodge City, Kan. The last storm of such intensity was 30 years ago, he said.

The Oklahoma Panhandle was virtually closed off, highways in central Nebraska were closed and others were nearly impassable. In Colorado, 10 miles of Interstate 70 from the Kansas border to Burlington were closed. About 165 miles of I-70 was closed in Kansas.

State crews trying to plow I-70 in Kansas were pulled off at midday because of high wind. ″It’s drifting over as soon as they move their plows through,″ said Erroll Wuertz, Ellis County spokesman.

″The main thing ... we’ve got just stranded motorists here in town,″ said Lt. Larry Warlick of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol in Guymon. He said there were a couple of hundred cars parked in town, and the state Transportation Department reported drifts 6 to 8 feet high.

The National Weather Service posted blizzard warnings for part of western Kansas. Snow also fell in a belt across Kansas and Nebraska into South Dakota and Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle had blowing snow.

Kansas’ blizzard followed a series of thunderstorms, one of which produced a tornado Sunday that destroyed several buildings in Rooks County.

″We’re in a mess,″ said Rooks County Sheriff Frank Skovold. ″It seems like we’re fighting all the elements at one time today. We’re kind of just holding our own at the moment.″

The Finney County, Kan., sheriff’s department said 75 to 100 vehicles were stranded on highways around Garden City. Officials said many motorists complicated the problem by going around barricades and then getting stuck. Schools, the courthouse and many businesses were closed.

At the Oklahoman Motel in Guymon, Okla., manager Neal Tanquary said frustrated travelers were waiting out the storm in his lobby.

″We’ve got ’em everywhere,″ he said. ″It’s kind of a bottleneck right now.″

On Monday, the storm collapsed roofs and stranded 500 cars on one 17-mile stretch of highway in Texas. It also was blamed for two traffic deaths Monday in Oklahoma. Motorists stranded in the Texas Panhandle slept under donated blankets at schools, courthouses and churches.

Gray County, Texas, Sheriff Rufe Jordan called the storm there ″the worst I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here 71 years.″

Schools across central Nebraska dismissed early Monday and were closed Tuesday. Some schools also closed in southeastern South Dakota.

″Everybody was hollering three weeks ago ‘Man, we need moisture,‴ said Harry Roblyer of Burwell, Neb., which had an estimated 12 to 14 inches of snow. ″Now they’re saying ’Why’d we have to get it all at once?‴

On the eastern side of the snow belt, heavy rain bloated streams in parts of Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska.

In eastern Nebraska, where at least 5 inches of rain had fallen since Sunday, a threat of flooding forced school closings from Memphis to Deshler to Cedar Rapids. U.S. Highway 136 west of Beatrice was closed because of high water. The Big Blue River was expected to crest 10 feet above flood stage Wednesday in Beatrice.

Thousands of people in western Kansas were without electricity Tuesday because of downed power lines and poles. At least 300 poles were knocked down by wind gusts to nearly 80 mph Monday in the Dodge City area, said Bill Ohlemeier, spokesman for an association of three dozen rural electric cooperatives.

Wind and heavy, wet snow were blamed for downed power lines in Oklahoma. ″At least two-thirds of the county is without electricity,″ said Beaver County Sheriff Bill Cassingham.

In Texas, Dallas Power & Light Co. reported numerous, short-term service interruptions and Texas Utilities Electric reported temporary outages affecting about 30,000 Tarrant County customers.

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