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Tuesday February 25th, 2020 6:10AM

Wintry storm delivers US travel woes before Thanksgiving

By The Associated Press
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DENVER (AP) — Heavy snow and wind shut down highways Tuesday in Colorado and Wyoming, prompted school closures in Nebraska and forced more than 1,000 travelers to sleep overnight in Denver’s airport after hundreds of flights were canceled just as the intense Thanksgiving week travel period went into high gear.

That storm headed next to South Dakota, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin and another storm in the Pacific Ocean was closing in on California, Oregon and Nevada — making for a double whammy of early wintry weather.

And in northern California and southern Oregon, residents were bracing for the late Tuesday afternoon arrival of a “bomb cyclone” weather phenomenon that could create waves of up to 35 feet (11 meters), wind gusts of up to 75 mph (120 kph) and heavy snow in mountainous areas.

At Denver International Airport, about 10 inches (25.4 centimeters) of snow mixed with winds that limited visibility prompted the cancellation of about 30 percent of the airport’s average daily 1,600 flights. Operations began returning to normal in the afternoon as the storm moved east after dumping up to nearly 3 feet (0.9 meters) of snow in parts of northern Colorado.

Southwest Airlines canceled about 200 flights in Denver and airline spokesman Brad Hawkins said it would take "a couple of days" to accommodate stranded passengers on other flights because there are few during the pre-Thanksgiving travel crush. That makes it hard for airlines to rebook passengers whose flights have been canceled.

About 1,100 people spent the night at the airport, including many cadets from the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs who either missed flights or wanted to get to the airport before road conditions deteriorated, said airport spokeswoman Alex Renteria.

Among them was cadet Sadie Luhman, whose trip to the airport took three hours — twice the normal driving time. She got to the airport at 1 a.m., 10 hours before her scheduled flight to Chicago for Thanksgiving.

“I just wanted to beat the storm. We kind of left in the middle of it so it kind of didn’t work, but we got here,” she told KCNC-TV.

Airport workers handed out blankets, diapers, baby formula, toothbrushes and toothpaste to the airline passengers who camped out for the night on floors and in chairs.

The snow forced the closures of long stretches of Interstates 70 and 76 on plains east and north of Denver. Parts of Interstate 80 in Wyoming were buried under snow drifts of up to 4 feet (121 centimeters), officials said.

Many government offices in the Denver area and in Cheyenne, Wyoming closed along with colleges and schools not already on holiday break. In Nebraska, several school districts canceled classes Wednesday and the southwestern city of Sidney had received about 8 inches (20 centimeters) of snow.

Blizzard and wintry weather warnings extended into the Great Lakes states with the storm expected to bring high winds and snow to Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin later Tuesday and a chance of snow over the weekend for parts of New England, said Alex Lamers, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“That could be a coast-to-coast storm,” he said.

The storm is expected to dump snow on the airport in Minneapolis, where Delta Air Lines in the major carrier, but most is expected to fall overnight when few flights are scheduled.

Delta prepared by filling de-icing tanks, calling in extra flight dispatchers and operations employees, and having some of its 20 in-house meteorologists focus on the Minneapolis forecast.

"The timing is very helpful," said Erik Snell, a Delta senior vice president who oversees operations. "It gives the airport time to clear the runways, although we'll have to watch the residual snowfall in the morning."

The storm system could mean disappointment for fans of the larger-than-life balloons flown at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

Organizers were preparing for the possibility that of grounding the iconic balloon characters because of 40-50 mph (64-81 kph) gusts in the forecast. Rules put in place after several people were injured by a balloon years ago require lower altitudes or full removal if sustained winds exceed 23 mph (37 kph) and gusts exceed 34 mph (54 kph). The decision will be made on parade day.

The second storm developing in the Pacific Ocean was expected to slam the West Coast of the U.S. on Tuesday evening, bringing snow to the mountains of California and Nevada and wind and rain along the coasts of California and Oregon.

Forecasters warned of “difficult to impossible travel conditions” across much of northern Arizona later this week as that storm dumps about 2 feet (61 centimeters) of snow.  The approaching storm accelerated the annual winter closure of the highway leading to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon by five days.

This month, AAA predicted that the number of travelers over a five-day stretch Thanksgiving holiday travel period starting Wednesday will be the second-highest ever, behind only 2005.

For those flying, airlines expect traffic to be up about 4% from this time last year. Airlines added about 850 flights and 108,000 seats per day on average to handle the increase over last year’s crowds, according to the trade group Airlines for America.

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This version has been corrected to show that average number daily flights at Denver International Airport is 1,600, not 1,500.

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Koenig reported from Dallas. Associated Press writers Thomas Peipert in Denver, Bob Moen in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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