A major winter storm hit southeastern Wyoming on Wednesday, closing interstate highways, stranding travelers and sending government workers home early in Cheyenne.
Mike Sowko, forecaster with the National Weather Service in Cheyenne, said Wednesday evening that the storm was the most intense to hit the area in several years. He said wind gusts of 50 mph were common throughout the afternoon together with heavy snow.
“I think it surpasses the last couple of winters”‘ Sowko said. “I think the March of ’03 storm was the last time we had this much severe winter activity.”
But by midmorning Thursday, snow had stopped falling and visibility had returned to the capital city.
“The storm pretty much followed its predicted path,” Sowko said.
Sowko said it’s hard to determine exact snowfall amounts because it’s not evenly distributed. “We have drifts up to 6 feet high in some locations, and in other areas, it is completely dry on the asphalt and concrete.”
Sowko said Wyoming caught the edge of a very powerful low pressure system that moved through southern Colorado and then on into Kansas. He said the storm should be completely out of Wyoming by midday Thursday.
Wheatland was about the northernmost point that received snow from the storm, Sowko said. He said Laramie received a few inches, but said not much fell farther west.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation reported Thursday morning that Interstate 80 was closed from Pine Bluffs, Wyo., west to Cheyenne, and Interstate 25 was closed from Wheatland south into Colorado. Several other area roads were also closed. In Cheyenne, police were advising people Thursday to stay home if possible; on Wednesday, the Cheyenne Transit bus service was shut down for only the second time in the last 15 years.
Still, Wyoming Highway Patrol Sgt. Stephen Townsend said late Wednesday his agency had no reports of major crashes and speculated that the lack of visibility had forced motorists to keep their speed down.
Stacey Stoyle, emergency dispatcher for the Town of Pine Bluffs, in the southeastern corner of the state, said Wednesday evening that the town’s one hotel had filled up early in the afternoon with stranded motorists.
“We have a ton of people in town,” Stoyle said. “We’ve actually opened the community center up, and we have some beds and blankets that we’ve put out that people can have.”
A pilot made an emergency landing in a field of wheat stubble near Pine Bluffs on Wednesday morning after detecting engine trouble while flying through the storm.
Gerry Luce, a spokesman for the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department, said William Chase, of Waukee, Iowa, was flying a contract flight for the U.S. Postal Service from Denver to Scottsbluff, Neb., when he was forced to land about 8 miles south of Pine Bluffs.
Luce said Chase reported that his carburetor had frozen. Luce said Chase was not injured.
Aaron McDaniel, front desk clerk at the Hitching Post Inn in Cheyenne, said all 177 rooms there were full. He said some flights Wednesday were diverted from Denver International Airport to Cheyenne, contributing to the increase in lodgers.
Weather remained mild across much of the rest of Wyoming on Wednesday, but because so many flights in and out of Wyoming communities go through Denver, air travel was disrupted around the state.
“It’s really bad,” Lindsay Slaught, customer service supervisor for SkyWest at Natrona County International Airport, told the Casper Star-Tribune on Wednesday. “We are rebooking flights to the best of our ability.”
Travelers were making the most of it, McDaniel said. “They all started hitting the bar and the restaurant,” he said.
Brian Scott, desk clerk at the Little America Cheyenne motel said rooms were filling up fast with stranded motorists.
“When I got here at about 3:30, we had about 70 rooms and we’re down to about 30, just from people coming in who got stuck on the roads,” Scott said. He said motorists were telling him that the roads “were a mess.”
Wyoming state government offices closed at 3 p.m. Wednesday and were scheduled to reopen at 10 a.m. Thursday, Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s office said. The special hours apply only to state offices in areas affected by the storm.
Amy Johnston, a Wheatland-area farmer, told the Star-Tribune that despite the thick blanket of snow, the storm probably didn’t do much to help drought-stricken fields.
“It didn’t seem like the snow had any moisture in it, and it blows so bad here that it’s most likely just going to blow away,” Johnston said.
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