Weather & Natural Disasters

Travel chaos as heavy winds leave thousands without power in Northwest

M. Alex Johnson and Erik Ortiz
A worker with photographs a tree that fell on power and fiberoptic lines and blocking the NW Seabeck Highway, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, near Bremerton, Wash.
Ted S. Warren | AP

A blast of wintry weather brought whiteout conditions from Colorado to Kansas on Tuesday, while hundreds of thousands in the Northwest remained without power Wednesday after fierce winds killed at least three people, officials said.

A windstorm reached as high as 119 mph in the Cascade Range of western Washington state as 49 mph gusts battered the Puget Sound region, The Weather Channel reported.

Nearly 300,000 people were still in the dark as of 5:30 a.m. ET, and Spokane Public Schools announced classes were canceled Wednesday due to the outages.

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"Given the typical ratio of power customers to actual people, this means at least 1 million people were affected by power outages in Washington alone," said senior meteorologist Nick Wiltgen.

Meanwhile, three people were killed in separate accidents involving fallen trees as strong winds thrashed Washington, police said. Two of the victims were inside their cars when the trees toppled on their vehicles.

Some roads remained blocked off to traffic Wednesday morning after poor visibility shut down stretches of highway.

State transportation officials said a mudslide closed parts of State Route 20, north of Seattle, while flooding washed out parts of U.S. Route 2, Reuters reported.

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"Many roads are closed from downed trees, active power lines, flood waters," Snohomish County Fire Chief Merlin Halverson told Reuters. "It's a hell of mess here."

Meanwhile, heavy blowing snow shut down almost 175 miles of Interstate 70 from the Denver area to Goodland, Kansas, on Tuesday while ice closed 55 miles of Interstate 25 in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

Denver International Airport canceled 150 arrivals and departures and reported that almost 500 more were delayed Tuesday.

The storm dumped 20 inches of new snow east of Monument, Colorado, where more than 100 drivers were stranded along I-70, NBC station KOAA of Colorado Springs reported.

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Another 100 vehicles were also stranded just south of Trinidad, New Mexico, according to NBC station KOB of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Victor Morris was driving from El Paso, New Mexico, to Colorado Springs on I-25 when he ran into the whiteout Tuesday.

"I'm going to have to do what the Army taught me—bypass," Morris told KOB. "And the bypass is going to take me two or three hours going south and, like, five hours going north."

Some neighborhood boys gathered to help dig a woman's car out of a 2-foot snow drift in Parker, Colorado, NBC station KUSA of Denver reported.

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One of them, Bryce, the woman's son, said it was good fun — "I plowed through some snow drifts."

But Bryce was sure his mom wasn't happy.

"She's sitting at home yelling at me," he said.

More than 2 feet of snow also locked in the 813 residents of Ouray, Colorado, near Telluride, said the National Weather Service, which recorded 15 inches near McGill, Nevada, 11 inches in Flagstaff, Arizona, and 9 inches in Taos, New Mexico.

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While most of the worst snow had ended by Tuesday night, "we've still got plenty of cold air continuing to come in," said Danielle Banks, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel. Several locations in eastern Colorado and western Kansas remained under blizzard warnings.

Gusts as high as 65 mph were still creating dangerous whiteout conditions Tuesday night across in the High Plains. Transportation authorities urged motorists to stay home if they could in Colorado, southern Wyoming, northeast New Mexico, western Nebraska and northwest Kansas.

The storm—created by a powerful low-pressure system—was heading to the Southeast, where it was already creating heavy thunderstorms and the threat of floods.

"We're still not out of the woods for many locations in Arkansas," Banks said.

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North Little Rock, Arkansas, recorded 2.21 inches of rain by 4:55 p.m. (5:55 p.m. ET), the National Weather Service said — smashing the Nov. 17 record of 0.85 of an inch in 1996.

Flash flood warnings were in effect Tuesday night for northeast Arkansas, while watches extended from southern Illinois all the way down through Louisiana and Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Thunderstorms with tornado-speed winds knocked out power and ripped the roof off a business in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, NBC station KARK of Little Rock reported.

"It looked like a tornado in the movies — you know, a tornado with the lightning inside," said Helga Gibson, owner of Central Bark, a dog spa in Hot Springs.

"It was pretty scary," she said.