Rare white Christmas graces Texas panhandle

AUSTIN, Texas Sun Dec 25, 2011 11:39pm EST

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AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A light dusting of snow in north Texas delivered a rare white Christmas to this drought-stricken state, but the majority of the nation was seeing mild weather on Sunday.

Snow showers glazed parts of the Northeast as well, with snowy road conditions cited as a factor in a two-vehicle traffic collision that left four men dead in the town of Palermo, Maine, on Sunday.

But weather forecasters said 99 percent of Americans would see more green and brown for their Yuletide celebrations -- along with plenty of rain, according to Accuweather.com.

Other extreme weather included freeze warnings posted in the farm-rich Central Valley of California, gale warnings near the Great Lakes, and high winds that claimed the life of a young girl and left thousands of homes without power in and around Seattle.

Tobiah Leonard, 9, was killed when part of a fallen tree crushed the roof of the sport utility vehicle she was riding in with her family en route to a holiday gathering on Whidbey Island, about 40 miles northwest of Seattle, said Keith Leary, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol.

Her father, also a passenger in the SUV, was flown to a Seattle hospital with injuries to his back and neck from the freak accident but was expected to survive, Leary said.

The wet Christmas in the Texas panhandle and Permian Basin brought some cheer for drought-weary Texans, who were seeing snow in Lubbock and Amarillo on Christmas morning and rain in the eastern part of the state.

The worst drought on record in Texas this year stoked devastating wildfires, killed as many as half a billion trees, and prompted the most serious urban water-use restrictions ever in the state.

By mid-afternoon on Sunday, at least 4 inches of snow had fallen in Amarillo, making it the second snowiest Christmas in that city's history, National Weather Service forecaster Stephen Bilodeau said.

And with winter weather advisories in effect until 6 a.m. on Monday, there was a chance that Amarillo's record for snow accumulation might be broken before midnight.

Bilodeau said he would have preferred that the snow quit early and left the afternoon safer for Christmas Day travel.

"It's a little bit too much," he said. "The white Christmas through the beginning of the day was good, but now these poor people are getting out into this stuff. There have been a few accidents, and it's ruining a few people's day today."

Not so for native Texan and conservationist Don Alexander, 55, who was spending the holiday with his wife's family in Midland, and enjoying his very first white Christmas.

"The snow is a nifty bonus," Alexander said, as his college-aged daughter posted snow pictures on her Facebook page. "The snow will certainly make this particular Christmas memorable. Winter isn't very scenic in West Texas, so the layer of snow is a nice effect. The bad part is having to wipe down the dog's paws every time he goes outside and then back in."

Far to the north, public safety officials in Maine said four men were killed in a head-on crash between an SUV and another vehicle on a road made slippery by light snowfall in Palermo, about 60 miles northeast of Portland. Police said the collision ranks as Maine's deadliest traffic wreck this year.

Very little fresh snow was expected to fall elsewhere throughout the day on Sunday, according to Accuweather.com. But a storm in southern Ontario was forecast to move into Quebec on Sunday night and drop snow near the Great Lakes, with some accumulation likely overnight.

Residents from Watertown, New York, to Bangor, Maine -- many of whom are off work on Monday in observance of the Christmas holiday -- could wake up to an inch of snow on the ground Monday as that storm moves East.

The Weather Service posted a wind advisory for western Washington state on Sunday, warning of gusts reaching 50 miles per hour through mid-afternoon.

Utility companies reported some 32,000 homes and businesses without electricity in Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region during the day, mostly from tree limbs blown into power lines.

Most of the Pacific Northwest was experiencing mild weather on Christmas Day, while states like Colorado and New Mexico had lingering snow leftover from a pre-Christmas storm.

(Additional reporting by Zach Howard and Laura L. Myers. Editing by Tim Gaynor and Steve Gorman)

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