Blizzard conditions blamed for at least seven deaths

OKLAHOMA CITY Tue Dec 20, 2011 7:26pm EST

1 of 4. A truck travels along Highway 40 as snow covers the highway and the surrounding plains, west of Hays, Kansas December 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Steven Hausler

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OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Blizzard conditions that shut down highways in five states on Monday were blamed for at least seven deaths, officials said on Tuesday.

The storm filled roadside hotels and motels from eastern New Mexico to Kansas on Monday and triggered nearly 100 rescue calls from the Texas Panhandle. It moved deeper into the Great Plains on Tuesday.

A tornado sparked by thunderstorms along a cold front racing ahead of the storm damaged a hospital in DeQuincy, Louisiana, on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

"The system has basically broken itself apart and it's slowly weakening," NWS meteorologist Kurt Van Speybroeck told Reuters on Tuesday afternoon.

Four people died on Monday in east-central New Mexico when the car they were traveling in spun out of control on an icy road and slammed into a pickup truck, according to Curry County Undersheriff Wesley Waller.

Further south in New Mexico on Monday, a man was killed when the sports utility vehicle he was driving overturned, said State Police Lieutenant Robert McDonald.

And in eastern Colorado on Monday, a prisoner and a corrections officer were killed when the driver of a van transporting nine prisoners lost control on Interstate 70, authorities said.

An additional five people also died in a single-engine plane crash in Central Texas on Monday, but the crash was not near the severe weather in the Texas Panhandle.

"Weather may have been a contributing factor," Texas Department of Public Safety Corporal Jimmy Morgan told Reuters on Tuesday. "There was some rain in this area and some lightning."

The storm system moved from New Mexico into Oklahoma on Monday, leading to blizzard conditions in New Mexico, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, eastern Colorado and western Kansas, said Mark Wiley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

New Mexico received up to two feet of snow in the mountains, and eastern Colorado and western Kansas saw snow drifts of 4-6 feet as winds were gusting up to 50 miles per hour, he said.

By Tuesday afternoon, the storm had brought snow from Oklahoma into Kansas, Van Speybroeck said.

Some major roadways that had closed were reopening on Tuesday, such as much of Interstate 40 between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Amarillo, Texas, as well as Interstate 25 between Santa Fe and Raton, New Mexico.

"We are just mopping up now and highways are beginning to move," Paul Gray of the New Mexico Department of Transportation told Reuters Tuesday.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, reopened on Tuesday.

In Texas County, Oklahoma, where two shelters opened Monday night, snowplows were clearing roads on Tuesday.

"We're just going to have to wait till it melts," Harold Tyson, emergency management coordinator for the county, told Reuters. "A lot of people are getting stuck."

The snowfall was welcomed by many in the drought-stricken panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma.

"We need all the moisture we can get so we're really glad," said Vicki Roberts, co-owner of the Black Mesa Bed & Breakfast in Kenton, Oklahoma, an area dominated by ranching.

(Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio, Dennis Carroll in Santa Fe and Kevin Murphy in Kansas City; Writing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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