Snow, wind, rain cause holiday travel worries

DENVER Thu Dec 22, 2011 6:05pm EST

1 of 3. Freshly fallen snow is seen in Denver's Civic Center Park in downtown Denver December 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Evan Semon

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DENVER (Reuters) - Snowfall in the Rockies, strong winds in the West and soaking rain in the South caused problems for holiday travelers on the first official day of winter, forecasters said on Thursday.

A snowstorm swept across Colorado overnight, dumping up to 10 inches of snow in the Denver metropolitan area and up to two feet of snow in the foothills west of the city, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm snarled rush-hour traffic in the Denver area, and roads from Wyoming to the New Mexico border remain snow-packed and icy, said Mindy Crane, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

"It's affected the whole urban corridor," Crane said.

More than 100 regional commuter flights from rural airports had been canceled at Denver International Airport, but all runways were open, said airport spokeswoman Laura Coale.

The early winter snowfall is a boon to Colorado's ski resorts for the upcoming busy holiday season. The fresh snow and warmer temperatures forecast for the weekend will make for optimum skiing conditions, said Mistalynn Lee, spokeswoman for the Winter Park ski resort west of Denver.

"Christmas came early," she said.

The dangers of heavy snowfall to travelers in some parts of the country were highlighted by the rescue of a college student stranded in her car for nine days on a barren northern Arizona road was rescued after living on candy bars and melted snow.

Arizona State University student Lauren Weinberg, 23, was found Wednesday by two U.S. Forest Service employees patrolling on snowmobiles, Coconino County Sheriff's Office patrol Lieutenant Jim Coffey said.

The discovery came the same day a Texas family was rescued from their sports utility vehicle, trapped for at least 36 hours under heavy snow in New Mexico, police said.

Heavy snowfalls were again developing over New Mexico, with 12 to 18 inches of snow expected on Thursday afternoon and evening in the mountains, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Wiley.

Some three to five inches of snow are expected in the western part of the state, he said.

Wiley said travel could be hampered, though the winds were not likely to be as strong as the 35-40 mph winds that blew snow around earlier this week, shutting down highways in New Mexico and nearby states.

Wind gusts also affected Southern California on Thursday, where forecasters warned travelers they should use extra caution as gusts up to 60 mph would make driving difficult over the holiday weekend. The Weather Service advised motorists to watch for broken tree limbs and downed power lines.

By Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, Wiley said, the snow storm is expected to move into north Texas, where two to four inches of snow could fall.

Heavy rain and thunderstorms in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee also could disrupt flights, said AccuWeather.com senior meteorologist Paul Walker.

Persistent rain was falling in Memphis early on Thursday and moving across the state.

"There will be a lot of rainfall today, with the areas south and east of us getting one to three inches," said Trevor Boucher, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Nashville.

Most of the more violent weather -- thunder and lightning storms -- will stay south of Tennessee, he said.

The showers will move into the Northeast, bringing heavy rains and thick fog overnight to New York, Washington and Philadelphia, Walker said.

"There's going to be some snow up into northern New England, north of Boston," Walker said.

(Additional reporting by Mary Slosson, Tim Ghianni, Corrie MacLaggan; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis)

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