Colorado Guard takes aid to snowbound travelers

Sunday, April 19, 2009

DENVER -- Colorado transportation officials on Saturday reopened a lengthy section of Interstate 70 that was closed overnight, stranding hundreds of travelers, by a storm that dumped more than 3 feet of snow in the region west of Denver.

More than 500 people had spent the night at three shelters in Idaho Springs and Georgetown after the closure of the 80-mile stretch of I-70 in the mountains, said Jim Rettew, an American Red Cross spokesman.

The Colorado National Guard delivered two truckloads of cots, blankets and food to the stranded travelers.

Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Bob Wilson said Saturday morning that the highway was reopened but cautioned drivers to expect heavy traffic and sloppy road conditions throughout the day.

"It's not the I-70 you know in a June afternoon," Wilson said.

After the highway reopened, the shelters were shutting down and staff was being sent home, Rettew said.

About 90 people spent the night at an elementary school in Idaho Springs, including people traveling from Alaska, Utah and Washington, D.C., said shelter manager Linda Broom.

"They were really most appreciative and in good spirits because it was pretty late and they had been sitting in traffic. They slept well," Broom said. "One slept extremely well, as we could all hear."

The heaviest snowfall was in the foothills west of Denver, with 43 inches at Pinecliffe and 36 at Black Hawk, said weather service meteorologist Scott Entrekin. He said April could sometimes be one of the state's snowiest months.

A mixture of rain and snow continued falling across the state Saturday morning, and Entrekin said the southern Denver metro area could see 2 to 5 more inches before the storm tapers off Saturday evening.

Denver International Airport was open and there were no immediate reports of flight cancellations. On Friday, United Airlines, the airport's dominant carrier, canceled 76 flights.

Power lines weighed down by snow tripped system circuit breakers and knocked out electricity to 9,600 Xcel Energy customers in Evergreen and 4,600 people in Nederland, 25 miles west and 35 miles northwest of Denver, respectively, said Joe Fuentes, a spokesman for the utility. About 2,600 customers lost power in Denver.

Along I-70, the Red Cross had to open a second shelter in Idaho Springs late Friday after its first shelter there filled to capacity with more than 300 people, Rettew said late Friday.

The stranded travelers didn't all get cots, but many got snacks and most were in good spirits, he said.

"Some are trying to sleep, some are talking, some are eating, some are on the phone," Rettew said. "When this kind of thing happens, everyone just makes the best in trying circumstances."

The National Guard escorted a caravan of volunteers and supplies to the shelters after Clear Creek County declared an emergency and asked for state assistance.

Numerous traffic accidents were reported across Colorado, and State Patrol Trooper Gilbert Mares said he knew of one fatality.

U.S. 40 over Berthoud Pass, the main road to the Winter Park ski resort, also was shut down Friday evening because of a pair of avalanches. A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation said no injuries were reported.

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