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Plains' holiday forecast: white Christmas, tough traveling

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 | 4:54 p.m. CST

DENVER — Holiday travelers scrambled to adjust their plans Tuesday as a fast-moving snowstorm threatened to bring long delays along with a white Christmas for millions of people throughout the West and Midwest.

The storm system was already snarling traffic in Arizona on Tuesday, with blizzard-like conditions closing roads and causing a pileup involving 20 vehicles. South of Phoenix, a dust storm set off a series of collisions that killed at least four people.

The blustery weather in Arizona is part of a storm system that promised to bring more than a foot of snow in parts of Colorado and southern Utah by midday Wednesday. Blizzard warnings were likely on Christmas Eve in Kansas and other Plains states as the storm moves east.

The storm was expected to crawl across the Plains states through Christmas Day, with plenty of snow caused by a tropical jet stream pumping in moisture from the storm's south.

Stan Rose, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Pueblo, Colo., said the snowmaker would give millions of people a white Christmas.

"Pretty much the entire central and southern Rockies are going to get snow, and then it's going east and will drop more snow," Rose said.

A winter storm watch was in effect for most of southeast Colorado, the panhandle of Oklahoma and north Texas from late Tuesday through Thursday. By Tuesday afternoon, light snow was falling in Salt Lake City. There were no major airport delays reported there or in Denver, but holiday travelers across the region were warned to check with their airlines before arriving for flights.

In western Nebraska, a Colorado woman was killed Tuesday on Interstate 80 when her sport-utility vehicle apparently hit black ice and slid across a median.

The threat of snowy holiday delays was enough to make Leslie Boggess, 58, of eastern Colorado drive to Denver a day early to spend Christmas with her grandchildren.

"I heard about the snow, and I just didn't know about waiting. Out there on the plains, that wind gets going, and you don't know if it's even safe to drive," said Boggess, who was waiting for a bus with her 8-year-old granddaughter in a downtown Denver bus station.

Her granddaughter, Aniyah Hill, had little worry that a snowstorm would ruin her holiday.

"I'll get to play in the snow," she said, mulling the forecast somewhat seriously. "I think it's a good thing."

Craig Rueschhoff and his girlfriend, Brenna Larson, planned to leave Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday evening instead of Wednesday night to make the 210-mile drive to Columbus, Neb., to visit his parents.

Rueschhoff, 35, said they also planned to visit Larson's parents in western Iowa on their way back to Des Moines, but thought about skipping the annual trip.

"We've had both my mom and her mom encourage us not to come if the weather is too bad," he said. "They wouldn't feel bad if we didn't come. We've gotten their blessing."

Aaron Burr, general manager of the Bosselman Travel Center on Interstate 80 near Grand Island, Neb., said he noticed a heavier volume of travelers passing through as early as Saturday and Sunday.

He said truckers have told him that they want to get home before the storm, and a lot of families have stopped.

"We're just loading up in advance on fuel additives and things like that, getting our snow removal plan in gear and getting ready to go," Burr said.

The storm comes on the heels of a weekend storm that dropped record snowfall and interrupted holiday shopping and travel on the East Coast. Delays from that storm sparked an unruly crowd that included passengers still on standby Tuesday at the Delta Air Lines terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Police were called to help with crowd control.

Rose said holiday revelers in the West and Midwest should worry about the cold as well as the snow. Temperatures across Colorado on Christmas were not expected to get out of the 20s, with single-digits expected in the mountains.

"It's going to be cold to begin with, and then it's going to get even colder," Rose said.

Back in Denver, hot dog cart owner Jim Pittenger was doing a brisk business on a downtown sidewalk. Pittenger planned to stay open as long as customers were buying hot dogs — but not when the weather drops below freezing.

"I love a white Christmas, I really do. But at some point there's a fine line between providing good customer service and just being crazy by trying to stand out here and sell hot dogs," he said.


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