Updated: March 26, 2009 at 12:00 am
A blizzard slammed into Colorado Springs on Thursday with blinding snow and howling wind. The storm forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights in Denver and Colorado Springs, prompted businesses and government offices to close early and left streets icy and deserted throughout the Pikes Peak region. Forecasters said higher elevations could see up to 20 inches of snow by Friday.
The overnight low is expected to hit 13 degrees in Colorado Springs, with wind chills around zero, the weather service said.
Check back at gazette.com throughout the night for updates.
7 p.m. National Weather Service says the storm achieved blizzard status in Colorado Springs by 7 p.m. See below for the official explanation of how forecasters decide whether it's a blizzard.
6:35 p.m. From Lance Benzel: Hunkered down in his tent at a homeless camp near South Shooks Run Park, Royal Bennett relied on the secrets that have kept him going through three Colorado winters: closed-cell foam bedding, an Army surplus feather-lined sleeping bag and plenty of bedding.
"Too many people confuse inconvenience with hardship," he said through the tent wall. "This is inconvenient. It's not a hardship."
As winds battered the mostly deserted camp where nine other tents sat empty, the 49-year-old suddenly had a change of heart and asked for a ride to a homeless shelter.
"OK," he said. "This is a little much even for me."
6:34 p.m. Staff at the Red Cross shelter at St. Peter's Catholic Church, 55 N Jefferson St. in Monument, twiddled their thumbs Thursday evening. Volunteer Dale Smith said the shelter had seen four people come in and four people leave throughout the day. They plan to remain open throughout the night unless Red Cross tells them to close, Smith said.
6:30 p.m. It took one driver more than an hour to crawl from the Colorado Springs Airport to his home in Briargate, as he snaked up Academy and Union to avoid the back-up on Powers. Most drivers were taking it slow and steady, some pulling over to clear their windshields as they went.
He saw an accident with damage at Academy and Fountain, a semi stuck on a hill on Academy just north of Pikes Peak, two cars abandoned just north of Maizeland, and another car stuck on Union near the East Library. The most treacherous intersection was Union and Woodmen -- with an accident on the southeast corner, a car abandoned that had jumped the curb on the northwest corner, and a car spinning its wheels unsuccessfully as it slid around the lanes on northbound Union.
6 p.m. Colorado Springs is about two-thirds of the way to an official blizzard, the National Weather Service said. In order to qualify, a storm must create three hours of snow, visibility of less than one-quarter mile, and wind gusts of at least 35 mph. As of 6 p.m., the city had seen about two hours of such conditions.
5:40 p.m. Tom Roeder is still reporting from the cab of Snow Plow 3891 on Monument Hill. He says I-25 is in pretty good shape, but the exits are deceptively icy and treacherous. There have been a number of accidents
5:35 p.m. Few cars traveled Interstate 25 at what would normally be rush hour, with snow blowing sideways in the wind. At the Howard Johnson Inn at Academy Boulevard and I-25, some people had given up driving and booked rooms, said Marisa Swango, a front desk attendant. Others extended their stays rather than attempting to travel. Richard Forbes-Watkins and his wife, Ann, arrived there to check in after 5 p.m. -- nearly 11 hours after leaving Grand Junction to visit their son in Colorado Springs.
The couple said the drive was painfully slow. Richard Forbes-Watkins estimated the fastest he drove was about 40 mph, and that was briefly. The Academy Hotel, a Best Western, saw several cancellations as people thought twice about coming to Colorado Springs, attendants reported. All across town, many businesses appeared closed. Those that remained open had mostly empty parking lots.
5:30 p.m. El Paso County news release: Plow drivers are reporting brutal winds and drifting snow. Some of the worst conditions are being reported on Judge Orr road and throughout the northeast section of the county. Drifts on Judge Orr Road are reported at 2 feet deep and the winds quickly blow the snow back over the roadway after the plow truck passes.
5 p.m. Tom Roeder reports that the northbound I-25 exit at Baptist Road is closed because of a truck accident. Snow is drifting, but traffic is light.
4:50 p.m. The National Weather Service forecast calls for 4 to 8 inches of new snow overnight, and a low of 13 degrees, with wind chills around zero. On Friday, the chance of snow drops from 100 percent to 80, with a high of 30 degrees.
4:38 p.m. The American Red Cross now has three shelter locations open:
- ST. PETER'S CATHOLIC CHURCH, 55 N Jefferson St., Monument
- FALCON ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION CENTER, 11990 Swingline Rd., Peyton
- SENIOR CITIZEN CENTER, 114 E 2nd Street, La Junta
4:35 p.m. The blizzard meant business at Steins & Veins liquor store, near Centennial and Fillmore, which saw a steady stream of customers stocking up on alcohol.
"It's been pretty busy," said clerk Eileen Armstrong. "Snow will do this to a liquor store." One woman, she said, originally grabbed two bottles of wine. When she considered the weather, she grabbed four more. Many people were buying 12-packs instead of six, or big bottles of liquor instead of their usual fifths.
Owner Dee Lambert said people like to pour a drink and sit down in front of the fire. That was exactly the case for Judy Alcorta, 42, who'd just finished work shoveling snow at Colorado College and bought a 20-pack of beer.
4:20 p.m. County spokesman Dave Rose said county snowplow crews are having difficulty staying ahead of the storm due to winds that cover roads as soon as they're plowed and whiteout conditions.
"They won't plow in white out conditions," he said. "They've had to wait for the wind to die down" before resuming plowing. "They're going to stay at it unless they run into those whiteout conditions, and then it's just too dangerous," he said.
Snowplow drivers plan to work until 9 p.m., at which time they'll assess whether to continue or resume at midnight, Rose said.
He said no roads had been closed in the county as of 4 p.m.
4:05 p.m. From Bill Reed at the airport: The Colorado Springs Airport is full of waiting people this afternoon. Laptops are out, books are open, babies are crying and the bar is full.
"Flights started getting canceled between noon and 1 p.m." said airport spokesman John McGinley, "due to low visibility."
He expects cancellations to continue through the evening, and advises people to call their airline before they head for the airport.
Flights Friday may also be delayed, he warned.
That doesn't help the Minikin family, whose 1-year-old's cries are filling the airport. Sean and Sabrina Minikin's flight to Las Vegas has already been delayed until 8 p.m., they said. And they're not sure what they'll do if they get stranded overnight. The airport can offer only cots and blankets.
Another delayed passenger isn't waiting around to see if she can get off the ground.
"It's my mom's birthday today, so I was trying to get out there to surprise her," said Emily Schneider, a Colorado College student trying to get home to North Carolina. "But that's not going to happen."
Schneider had her nose buried in a book, still waiting for a friend to pick her up three hours after her flight was scheduled to leave.
3:59 p.m. From Brian Newsome: Downtown, normally thriving at 4 p.m. on a Thursday, was mostly deserted with rows of empty parking and few people on the streets.
3:35 p.m. Colorado Springs Shuttle is still running shuttles to Denver and the mountains. The shuttle to Vail was about an hour delayed, but still running. "It's a high demand when the snow comes," said manager Tito Valdez.
Shuttles from DIA to the Springs were maxed out because of canceled flights. Most of the shuttle drivers are from Colorado so they can handle the snow, Valdez said.
"As long as the airports and highways are open we'll do our best to get up there," he said.
3:29 p.m. Quite a few customers stopped by the King Soopers store on Fillmore Street and Centennial Boulevard. They weren't stocking up for the storm, they said, but it was a good chance to pick up groceries after getting off work early.
Annie Young, a human resources worker for the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office, said she got off work about 2 p.m. She had several bags of groceries, which included the makings of chili and other "cold-weather food."
Young loaded her groceries in a new Subaru Forester, which features an options many drivers no-doubt enjoyed Thursday: heated seats.
3:28 p.m. From Christopher Short: Unofficial snowfall totals are coming in. Forecaster Tom Magnuson, of the National Weather Service in Pueblo, said reports have ranged from 3 inches on the south side of Colorado Springs, up to 8 in Black Forest. The highest officially measured wind gust thus far has been 43 mph, at the Colorado Springs Airport. Magnuson said area residents should not be fooled by periodic breaks in the snowfall. "The storm is nowhere near - nowhere near - passing by," he said.
3:20 p.m. From reporter John Schroyer at the state Capitol: The Legislature adjourned early Thursday afternoon and decided to take a snow day on Friday, given the dangerous road conditions. A threatened snowball fight between the House and Senate never happened.
3:16 p.m. Penrose-St. Francis Health Services closed two of its urgent care centers, one in northern Colorado Springs and the other in Woodland Park, because of the storm. The Penrose Community Urgent Care Center at 3205 N. Academy Blvd. and Langstaff-Brown Urgent Care Center at 41 North Highway 67, were scheduled to reopen at noon Friday. People with emergencies were asked to go to their area hospitals if in need of emergency care.
3:10 p.m. Traffic on Interstate 25 is backed up, beginning at mile marker 153, with southbound traffic at a standstill. A driver reported it took 45 minutes to travel from downtown to the Nevada Avenue on-ramp, with traffic tangled on Union Boulevard and east-west arterials alike.
South Circle between Monterey Road and I-25 was another trouble spot, with some cars failing to get up the northbound hill, resulting in a mile-long backup.
3:08 p.m. Gazette intern Elizabeth Findell reports: Josh and John's said they were not busy as the snow fell, despite the incentives for eating ice cream in the snow. The parlor gives away five punches from a 15-punch card when it is snowing, and additional punches depending on how cold it is outside. A few patrons were taking advantage of the ice cream benefits, but the establishment reported fewer than usual.
3:03 p.m. From Perry Swanson: The parking lot was packed at about 3 p.m. at the Safeway supermarket on Wahsatch Avenue in the Bonn Shopping Center.
A clerk named Consuelo, who declined to give her last name, said that's typical during a snowstorm. "Everybody comes in for groceries, everybody panics," she said.
The best-selling items during a snowstorm are baking goods and comfort foods, she said.
For Safeway customer Jariah Walker, comfort food meant potato chips, soda and a special item for his wife. He said her car spun out on an icy road as she drove home from work Thursday afternoon.
"She was like 'I'm freaked out. All I want is some strawberry milk," Walker said.
3:02 p.m. From reporter Lance Benzel: The city's Communications Center is being "flooded with calls" and is asking people to use non-emergency numbers to report weather-related problems. For storm-related non-emergencies, call 444-7911, 444-7912 and 444-7913. Non-emergency calls unrelated to the storm should go to 444-7000.
Those with life-threatening emergencies should call 911 and stay on the line until their call is answered. Hang-ups create a backlog of calls for dispatchers, which can delay responses to true emergencies.
Metro bus services are continuing at this time but riders should expect delays.
Citizens planning to drop off election ballots should be aware that the only drop-off locations that will be staffed will be Fire Station #9 at 622 Garden of the Gods Rd. and Fire Station #17 3750 Tutt Blvd.
2:56 p.m. From Pam Zubeck: El Paso County now has 38 plow trucks and approximately 20 graders working on the county roads, county spokesman Dave Rose said. All areas of the county are being worked. As of 2:30 p.m., all roads were still open and passable. However, the most difficult travel conditions reported so far are in the northwestern part of county where gusty winds are adding to the poor visibility, he said. Roads are snow packed and slick in all areas of the county.
2:55 p.m. There's a lull in the storm, but forecaster Joe Ceru from the National Weather Service in Pueblo said Colorado Springs is just between snow bands. As the first band pushes off to the southeast, the next lurks between Leadville and Hartsel, Ceru said. It should hit the Pikes Peak region within the next two hours. The overall forecast calls for 9-13 inches of snow in the area by the time the last swath clears out Friday.
2:50 p.m. Gazette reporter Bill Reed is heading to the Colorado Springs Airport. He says northbound Powers is bumper-to-bumper for at least two to three miles.
2:30 p.m. El Paso County news release: Due to dangerous storm conditions all offices of the El Paso County Department of Human Services (DHS) are now closed.
2:20 p.m. Wind and snow are limiting visibility in the Black Forest area. Payal Patel, front desk agent at the Comfort Suites, said there are 3-4 inches of snow. The hotel is at about 60 percent capacity. Most people are sitting in their rooms watching TV and hanging out.
2:15 p.m. UCCS cancels evening classes and closes offices.
2:13 p.m. Taylor Mikkelsen, an employee at Falcon Feed and Tech in Peyton, says there are about 2 inches of snow, and it's "blowing a lot harder than it's snowing." The store was busy earlier with ranchers stocking up on feed, but it has now emptied and they're closing. Ranchers are concerned about losing calves.
2 p.m. Gov. Bill Ritter has issued a disaster declaration due to today's blizzard, activating the National Guard to assist with rescue operations and authorizing up to $200,000 in state funds for emergency assistance.
1:59 p.m. The Pikes Peak chapter of American Red Cross is preparing an emergency shelter for stranded travelers at St. Peter's Catholic Church, 55 N. Jefferson Ave., Monument. The shelter will open at 2:30 p.m.
1:57 p.m. Tom Roeder is aboard Snow Plow 3891 on Monument Hill. The battle of Monument Hill started at 11:30 a.m. when the first flakes started falling and the first cars started spinning.
Four plows from the Colorado Department of Transpotation, armed with 12-foot wide blades and nine tons of sand and salt made circuits over Interstate 25, fighting their way through the blizzard that was dropping 2 inches an hour.
At noon, plow driver Brad Bauer saw the whiteout hit.
"Now the real fun begins," he said, with one hand on the wheel of his six-wheel drive truck and his other hand on the joy stick controlling the plow.
The goal is to keep the hill open for as long as possible. But Mother Nature, out-of-control drivers and chain-reaction crashes make it an uphill battle during the biggest storm in at least six years.
By 1:30 p.m., drivers were bailing from the highway, unwilling to risk the trek over the 7,360-foot hill.
"They're panicked," Bauer said.
1:46 p.m. Gazette reporter Daniel Chacon reports that the city of Colorado Springs is closing its administrative offices and recreation facilities and sending its "nonessential employees" home at 2 p.m. today. "People that were going to drop off their election mail ballots won't be able to do that at city facilities because there will be no one there to receive them after 2 p.m. today," city spokesman Tim Burke said.
1:43 p.m. From Gazette reporter Perry Swanson: Call it the Spring Blizzard of 2009. Pretty soon someone will be selling T-shirts.
The storm has crossed the threshold for "blizzard" designation in some areas, and it's approaching the definition most everywhere else in the Pikes Peak region.
The National Weather Service defines a blizzard by visibility and wind speed. A blizzard includes visibility of less than a quarter-mile with falling or blowing snow, and sustained wind or frequent gusts of at least 35 mph. All that has to happen for three hours or longer, said Meteorologist Joe Ceru, who works out of the service's Pueblo office.
The Air Force Academy is already in blizzard territory, where wind gusts are up to 42 mph. Colorado Springs isn't quite there, with gusts only 21 mph, but it will likely cross the threshold before the day's over, Ceru said.
A weather spotter for the National Weather Service reported 2.5 inches of snow on the ground at about 1:35 p.m.
1:42 p.m. Darlene Glenn, manager of the Independence Hotel in Cripple Creek, says the hotel is full, with people staying over because of the snow.
1:40 p.m. Not all flights out of Colorado Springs Airport had been canceled. Airport representative Kelly Jackson said some flights were still taking off and landing. Still, as the weather worsened, she said there have been several cancellations, diversions and delays. She recommended people scheduled to fly today contact their airline for up-to-the minute information.
1:40 p.m. Woodland Park reports about 6 inches of snow, not blowing. The Hungry Bear Restaurant closed about two hours early (at noon instead of two), owner Tony Wendt said.
1:39 p.m. Gazette reporter Pam Zubeck reports that North Union, Austin Bluffs Parkway and North Academy Boulevard are becoming slick, slowing traffic and creating hazardous driving conditions. Gusting winds reduce the half-block visibility to whiteout conditions at times. Still, traffic is moving on all main thoroughfares. She did not see any city snow plows or sand trucks.
1:30 p.m. Gazette reporter Wayne Heilman reports that the El Paso County Courthouse has been closed.
1:25 p.m. Latest National Weather Service update: Snowfall amounts of 8 to 20 inches are likely over much of this region. Southern El Paso and northern Pueblo counties will see slightly less snow ... with amounts generally in the 8 to 12 inch range. Gusty northerly winds of 25 to 35 mph ... with some gusts to 45 mph will create widespread blowing and drifting snow ... with blizzard conditions and difficult to impossible travel expected.
1:14 p.m. The Pikes Peak Workforce Center will close at 2 p.m. and will not reopen until 10 a.m. Friday, the center announced. More information about the Youth Work Zone can be found online at www.ppwfc.org.
1:06 p.m. Five-car wreck northbound I-25 between Baptist Road and the Monument exit.
1:04 p.m. The Academy Hotel has had a few people come in but not a big rush, a spokesman at the hotel said. If the weather persists, though, he said he expected the hotel, which sits at I-25 and Academy Boulevard, to be full by evening, especially if I-25 is closed.
1:02 p.m. Black Forest Fire spokeswoman Kathy Russell said roads are starting to ice up and it's "getting whiter and whiter outside my window." Russell strongly discourages travel in the area. "I tell people, when they get home stay home, and when they're going home, drive very very carefully," she said.
12:55 p.m. Several cars have spun out and crashed along I-25 at Monument Hill, Tom Roeder reports. Visibility is about 20 feet near County Line Road.
12:52 p.m. Snowplows in Colorado Springs were dispatched at noon today on a level one callout, meaning the city plows and applies anti-skid material on 2,200 miles along 45 designated snow routes.
The primary and secondary routes include major thoroughfares, streets leading to hospitals, schools, major employers and key collector streets funneling traffic to residential areas.
Once the city completes its task on the snow routes, plows may be available for residential streets by request.
12:47 p.m. El Paso County administrative offices will close at 1 p.m. DHS employees will be allowed to go home gradually through the afternoon so as not to disrupt operations too badly, county spokesman Dave Rose said. County snow plows mobilized at mid-morning in the north end of the county.
12:40 p.m. Snow blowing sideways at The Gazette. The grass across the street is covered.
12:36 p.m. A city dispatcher on emergency radio just sent crews to a crash at Powers and Constitution, saying "And so it begins." A few crashes had been reported earlier, but all were near Monument, out of Colorado Springs jurisdiction.
12:20 p.m. Amy Dixon, of the The Postal Annex in Monument, said the hard-falling snow seems to be driving a busy spell at the shipping store - at least for the time being.
"I think people are very worried and they're getting their errands done before it really gets going," she said.
It may not last long. Visibility is a quarter-mile at best and the snowfall is intensifying, she said.
"It looks bad. It's definitely coming down good," she said.
12:17 p.m. Constitution and Powers. Barry Noreen reports that it's snowing much harder and the snow is beginning to stick.
12:15 p.m. Sue Griswold, executive assistant Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce, says: "It's snowing pretty hard. We're loving it. It's white and fluffy and we need the moisture."
12:12 p.m. The state Department of Local Affairs' Division of Emergency Management is discouraging travel and asking employers to consider a phased release of employees as the storm bears down between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. The state Emergency Operations Center in Centennial was activated at 6:30 a.m. in anticipation of the storm. People are reminded to take disaster preparedness measures by packing an emergency car and home kit. For more information please visit www.readycolorado.com.
12:05 p.m. Visibility is down to a hundred yards at 83 and Powers, Tom Roeder reports.
12:02 p.m. CDOT is now recommending that semis chain up on I-25 north of Monument.
11:55 a.m. First snowflakes begin falling at The Gazette. No accumulation outside the front door!
11:37 a.m. An officer at the Monument weigh station said it's been snowing heavily for about an hour, though there is no accumulation yet on the roads. He estimated visibility at 1/4 mile.
11:28 a.m. Gazette reporter Dean Toda is traveling north on I-25. He says it's snowing hard on the north side of Monument Hill. In Castle Rock, roads are wet and slushy.
11:19 a.m. Gazette reporter Tom Roeder reports flurries at Interquest and Powers.
11:18 a.m. Pikes Peak Community College says all campuses are closing at noon today. All scheduled activities are canceled.
11:13 a.m. At the state Capitol, with heavy snow flurries falling in Denver, lawmakers were considering whether to quit work early today and take a snow day on Friday.
10:45 a.m. Snow is falling at Monument, but a police spokeswoman said there was no accumulation so far.
9 a.m. The storm is expected to arrive by 11 a.m. in northern El Paso County and 3 p.m. in the southern part of the county. Other blizzard warnings are in effect for all of eastern Colorado and western Kansas.
"This will be a dangerous winter storm," a weather service bulletin said.
Forecasters said the storm will be pushed by winds of 20 to 40 mph, with higher gusts possible, "producing widespread blowing and drifting snow with near zero visibility."
The storm could bring 8 to 20 inches of snow along the Interstate 25 corridor, and 8 inches to a foot in southern El Paso County.
Details of the blizzard warning from the Pueblo office of the National Weather Service are here.
In Denver, snow was already falling by 9 a.m., and forecasters said Denver could get 8-16 inches of snow by Friday. Airlines canceled dozens of flights at Denver International Airport. Several flights to and from Denver were canceled at the Colorado Springs Airport. Flight details are here.
Colorado Springs police activated "cold accident reporting" status, meaning anyone who's involved in a minor traffic wreck that doesn't involve injuries or alcohol should report it on the city Web page, www.springsgov.com, under Public Safety, Police Department.
Crashes in this category must be reported within 72 hours after the conclusion of the storm.
Highways throughout the state were mostly clear at 9:30 a.m., but that's expected to change as the morning goes on. U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass is closed because of weather conditions, and various other mountain highways are under chain restrictions but still open. Details are here.
This is the first storm since Colorado Springs snow-plowing crews reduced services to no plowing in residential areas until at least 6 inches of snow has accumulated. That change went into effect after the City Council cut the budget in February. Crews will focus on major traffic routes and areas that could be dangerous, such as steep hills.
Just one organization had canceled an event because of the weather as of about 9:30 a.m. An updated list is here.
Check back at gazette.com throughout the day for further updates.
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