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Sunday, December 31, 2006
Winter Whammy: One-Day Snowfall Most Ever
By Jeff Jones And Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writers
The tenacious snowstorm that blasted much of New Mexico over the past three days is expected to finally ease up today but not before breaking a snow record, leaving dune-sized drifts, forcing would-be travelers to seek shelter any place they could find it and prompting Gov. Bill Richardson to declare a disaster in many counties.
Friday's single-day snow total of 11.3 inches at the Albuquerque International Sunport shattered the previous one-day city record of 10 inches recorded at that site 47 years earlier, according to the National Weather Service.
The storm also helped make December the second-snowiest month on record in Albuquerque.
Most flights at the Sunport were scratched Saturday. Thousands of central New Mexico residents were left without power. Truck drivers turned a good portion of far East Central Avenue into a parking lot for much of the day as they waited for eastbound Interstate 40 to reopen.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White said his deputies were used to tougher snow conditions in the East Mountains, but nothing compared with the snow dumped on the state Friday and Saturday.
"I've been here 20 years and I've never seen anything like this," White said.
The Waffle House near Central and Tramway NE was near standing-room-only. Hotels were booked full; other travelers headed for Red Cross shelters.
Richardson late Saturday afternoon declared a disaster in at least a dozen New Mexico counties, including Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Taos, Union, Colfax, Quay, Mora, Harding, Guadalupe, San Miguel and Torrance.
State Homeland Security Director Tim Manning said that declaration allows the state to send in National Guard troops if necessary and frees up at least $750,000 in state money to reimburse local governments for the cost of cleanup.
"The state has suffered widespread damage," Richardson said in a statement. "We are doing everything necessary to free up funds to help counties restore essential services as quickly as possible."
Almost a record
National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Guyer said as of Saturday evening, 20.8 inches of snow had fallen at the Sunport this month.
The weather service has been keeping track of snow totals in Albuquerque since 1931, Guyer said. The only snowier month on record came in December 1959, when 23.7 inches fell.
But it could have been worse.
Slamming in on a weekend during winter break meant no stuck school buses or complicated commuter messes.
Police reported no weather-related fatalities and few crimes, although police were swamped with fender-benders.
The storm left indelible images throughout Albuquerque: skiers sliding on the streets, an upward spike in the snowman population and picturesque portraits of white powder adorning each tree.
"It's just a beautiful, beautiful day," Mayor Martin Chávez said. "This was a day made for staying home and making hot chocolate and snowmen."
Be it by car, truck or air, what the day wasn't made for was traveling.
The snow brought much of Albuquerque to a standstill, with cars and trucks stuck spinning through side streets, and vehicles backed in long lines waiting to get on closed freeways.
Severe winter driving conditions also plagued the northern, north central and northeastern parts of the state, said state Department of Transportation spokesman S.U. Mahesh.
Interstate 40 from Albuquerque to the Texas border was closed until between 4 and 5 p.m. Saturday. Interstate 25 was still closed Saturday night from Raton to Santa Fe, but the stretch south to Albuquerque reopened at 1 p.m. Saturday.
The state's fleet of 1,100 plows and trucks were busy clearing, salting and sanding roads. "The problem is we can't keep up," Mahesh said. "We keep clearing out and it keeps building back up."
A big parking lot
On I-40, at the eastern border of Albuquerque, the road closure left big rigs and passenger cars lined up as far as the eye could see. The impasse forced many drivers, either unaware of the closure or not heeding it, to pull U-turns on eastbound lanes of traffic and travel west on the same lanes looking for a way out.
East Mountains area residents were allowed to use Old Route 66 to get home, provided they showed identification.
Most of Albuquerque's city streets, mainly those that were not main arteries, were snow-packed and slushy. Crews "are working their tails off," the mayor said.
City buses were up and running, though some Rapid Ride buses had to be replaced with regular buses, Chávez said. Bus service today was to begin at 7 a.m. a two-hour delay for some routes.
At the Albuquerque International Sunport, about 75 percent of all flights in and out of the airport were canceled, said spokesman Daniel Jiron.
Southwest and United were expected to pre-position planes at the airport Saturday night to try to resume a normal schedule today.
Two community centers Manzano Mesa on the East Side and another center on the West Side were established as emergency shelters for stranded motorists. Other community centers and libraries were closed, and residential trash pickup was delayed or possibly suspended for the day.
Break out the generator
On 15th Street NW, close to Lomas, Roberto Gomez woke at 6:30 a.m. Saturday and hoped to brew some coffee.
"Everything seemed calm and quiet," the physician said.
But a flick of the switch produced no lights. And a look into the refrigerator and test of the TV confirmed the power was out a fallen elm tree branch took out the power line.
After calling Public Service Company of New Mexico customer service, he knew things were bad. Bad all over.
He was on hold for half an hour before giving up. He called back, and the lines were blocked.
A PNM spokesman later said power was restored to some, but that more outages could occur throughout the night Saturday.
Throughout Albuquerque, churches and stores were shut down or operating on a limited basis.
Calvary of Albuquerque canceled its services at 8 a.m. today. However, services at 9:30 and 11:15 a.m. will be held, as will a special New Year's Eve service at 7 p.m. tonight, said Calvary spokesman Chip Lusko.
Nowhere to shop
Two of Albuquerque's malls, Coronado Center and Cottonwood Mall, were closed.
Wal-Mart stores on San Mateo, Academy and Carlisle were shut down, although area pizza stores were feeding the hungry. Many, though, were offering only carry-out service.
"The roads are too icy to send our drivers out," said Theresa Sedillo, a general manager for Domino's pizza at Alameda and Rio Grande.
In northeast New Mexico, areas in and around the Union County city of Clayton were buffeted by a wicked winter one-two punch of 50-plus-mph winds and 30 inches of snow.
Drifts topped out at 10 to 15 feet.
About 100 stranded travelers holed up in a Clayton church; another 40-plus motorists caught in white-out conditions on the high plains west of that town took refuge overnight in a small ranch home.
"We're just stranded," said Clayton police communications Sgt. Vivian Baldonado, who was snowed in at work and had been on duty for more than 30 hours straight. "All our roads out of Clayton are closed. All our motels are full."
Hardy ranchers stayed indoors, hoping for a break in the blizzard of '06. Even longtime New Mexico residents were amazed at what they were seeing outside their living-room windows: a snow that at times appeared as if it would never let up.
"I wish you could see this picture I'm looking at it's really ugly," said Steve McClure, owner of the Red River Ranch between Springer and Wagon Mound, as he watched the blizzard Saturday afternoon.
"There's drifts of 3 and 4 feet in the yard. I can't see 300 yards," McClure said, adding that he'd just watched a pair of coyotes rushing through the snow to corral a jackrabbit.
He said that although he hadn't been able to get outside to feed his cattle, they'd be OK they weren't calving, and the fierce winds had exposed enough grass for them to eat.
The New Mexico Farm Bureau as of Saturday night was trying to get a handle on what effect the blizzard has had on livestock across the state. Ranchers with stranded livestock were asked to call a farm bureau hotline at 505-532-4705.
But the storm brought plenty of enjoyment.
At Netherwood Park near Girard and Indian School NE in Albuquerque, people raced down steep hills on sleds, snowboards, inner tubes and even an air mattress. About 150 parents, children and teens gathered there Saturday afternoon.
"I love it," said Downtown resident Helen Sterling, a middle-school counselor who was at the park with family and friends.
Nick DeLorenzo, a 19-year-old from Colorado, said he saw quite a few dramatic crashes.
"I landed on my face earlier," DeLorenzo said. "I got up, and I was fine."
Journal staff writers Sean Olson, Debra Dominguez-Lund and Dan McKay contributed to this report.
How much snow?
Red River, 31 inches
Peña Blanca, 30 inches
Clayton, 30 inches
Placitas, 18 inches
Santa Fe, 25.3 inches
Rio Rancho, 14 inches
Edgewood, 18 inches
Albuquerque, Sandia Heights, 24 inches
Albuquerque, Paseo del Norte and Eubank, 20 inches
Albuquerque, Juan Tabo and Montgomery, 18 inches
-- Source: National Weather Service
The storm that dumped its load on Friday and Saturday set records in Albuquerque. The 11.3 inches that fell at the airport Friday broke the previous one-day record of 10 inches.
But there was plenty of snow elsewhere:
A ranch near Pecos: 45 inches
Clayton area: 15-foot snowdrifts
Santa Fe, east of the Plaza: 25 inches
Albuquerque, Moon and Montgomery NE: 20 inches
Here comes the sun
The National Weather Service forecasts the return of sunshine today, with clear skies through New Year's Day and a high of 36 degrees. Clouds Monday night could lead to a slight chance of more snow showers starting Tuesday. Temperatures in Albuquerque are to drop to about 18 degrees tonight and 22 degrees Monday night.