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Winter Wallop Leaves Mess

By Jeff Proctor
Journal Staff Writer
    Three days after the snow started falling, hundreds of motorists were still stranded at the eastern edge of the city on New Year's Eve, waiting for Interstate 40 to reopen.
    After viewing New Mexico I-40 corridor by helicopter Sunday afternoon, Gov. Bill Richardson called the snow "the worst storm ever" to hit the state.
    The governor issued a disaster declaration Saturday to make emergency money available to hard-hit counties. The declaration also put National Guard troops on standby at armories statewide to help with emergency response.
    Airlines canceled numerous flights in and out of Albuquerque on Friday and Saturday, but Scott Gwiazda, an operations officer for the airport's communications center, said the airport was "pretty much back to normal" by midday Sunday.
    The storm— which the National Weather Service labeled as "dangerous winter weather"— dumped up to 2 feet of snow on the metro area.
    For many interstate drivers, Sunday was their second or third day stuck in the Duke City. They were tired and frustrated.
    "We got here about 6 in the morning on Saturday and spent last night in the car," said Suzanne Martinez. She and her husband and two children were on their way back to Dallas from San Diego when they hit the closed freeway.
    "It was hell on the kids," she said. "I don't think they slept a wink; I know I didn't. I don't know what we'll do tonight if it's still closed. We've tried every hotel anywhere near here, and they're all booked up."
    Hundreds of cars, trucks and semis sat in the snow in the eastbound lanes of I-40 from San Mateo to Tramway on Sunday.
    The major problem with I-40 existed along a 41-mile stretch just east of Clines Corners, State Police Chief Faron Segotta said.
    "It's a solid sheet of ice and there's very little visibility," Segotta said. "Weather conditions at the beginning of this storm caused the shutdown. At one point, the highway was passable and we released traffic, but conditions worsened again and numerous accidents happened, so we shut it back down. We've had very little cooperation from Mother Nature."
    By late afternoon Sunday, officials had a plan for the freeway, which had been closed in both directions since Friday save for a brief time Saturday afternoon.
    Police were planning to escort drivers into the city from Clines Corners, Segotta said. Police were checking every stranded car and taking food, fuel, blankets and water to those who needed it.
    Meanwhile, police were diverting I-40 traffic from west of the city up I-25 and across 84, where drivers could pick up I-40 west of Santa Rosa. Drivers were being sent to 84 from points west to take the same route back to I-40.
    Shelters were set up in stores, private residences and other locations along I-40 and in northeastern New Mexico to accommodate drivers.
    State Police reopened Interstate 25 from Santa Fe to Las Vegas, N.M., on Sunday morning and opened it all the way to Colorado Sunday afternoon.
    Segotta said reopening I-40 on Saturday afternoon— a move blamed for dozens of accidents east of the city— was not a mistake.
    "It's our job to ensure the roads are passable when people drive reasonably, and we did that," he said. "When you have poor visibility and ice, people tend to apply their brakes quickly, and that's what creates that chain reaction of accidents."
    Gov. Richardson said he was confident that authorities handled the storm well.
    "We've never been through anything like this before— from floods to fires to droughts to immigration and border issues— and now this big storm. A perfect storm was 2006.
    "Maybe we need more equipment, more training— we'll make a major assessment with regard to emergency preparedness and see how we've done. But I believe we were well-prepared across the board."
    While no more snow was expected overnight or this morning, the National Weather Service issued a dense fog advisory that will remain in effect until 11 a.m. today.
    The next chance for snow comes Tuesday, according to the Weather Service.
    Journal staff writer Sunnie Redhouse and The Associated Press contributed to this report.