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By Elisha Fieldstadt
A strong storm packing whipping winds and heavy snow that grounded flights, stranded drivers and knocked out power for thousands in the Plains states threatened on Thursday to bring misery to the Midwest.
The Colorado National Guard said they had rescued 75 people from stranded vehicles by Thursday morning. The Associated Press reported that the Guard was using specialized vehicles with tank-like tire treads in the heavy snow.
In El Paso County, more than 1,100 motorists were stranded Wednesday night, according to the sheriff’s office. “Search and rescue operations are ongoing but road conditions are treacherous,” Sheriff Bill Elder said on Facebook. “STAY HOME TOMORROW!”
About 86,000 customers in Colorado and 47,000 in New Mexico and northern Texas were without electricity early Thursday, according to Xcel Energy.
Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz told the AP that power might not be restored for days since zero visibility conditions were hampering repair workers’ efforts.
Winds in Colorado Springs gusted at 97 mph on Wednesday, and 80 mph at Denver International Airport, which closed all runways simultaneously for only the fourth time in its history. Almost 1,400 flights were canceled Wednesday because of white-out conditions.
By Thursday morning, nearly 700 more flights into and out of the airport were canceled, according to FlightAware.com.
Blizzard conditions were forecast to continue Thursday in northeast Colorado, along with eastern Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.
From eastern Colorado to the Ohio Valley, about 77 million people were under high wind watches and warnings, according to the National Weather Service. From 6 to 12 inches of snow was expected to fall in the central and northern Plains through Thursday.
“Travel will remain difficult and life threatening across these areas,” the NWS warned.
The storm had already contributed to at least one death. A Colorado State Patrol officer, Cpl. Daniel Groves, 52, was killed Wednesday after he was struck by a vehicle on Interstate 76 while responding to another vehicle that slid off the road.
In New Mexico, the storm’s high winds derailed a train on Wednesday, according to state police. And in Texas, the intense winds flipped a semi truck in Amarillo.
Meteorologists say a sudden and severe drop in ground-level air pressure, allowing air to rush in and rise into the atmosphere, causes storms of this severity. They call the rapid change in pressure a “bomb cyclone” or “bombogenesis.”