Blizzard conditions close Texas Panhandle highways

By Linda Stewert Ball: The Associated Press

DALLAS — A spring blizzard slammed into the Texas Panhandle, causing numerous accidents, shutting down major highways and paralyzing the region as residents braced Friday for up to a foot of snow, freezing 45-mph winds and massive snowdrifts.

“We’ve had several accidents, several tractor-trailors jackknifed but no fatalities,” Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Wayne Williams said Friday.

The blizzard is part of a storm system that’s all over the Southern High Plains, including eastern New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. About 1 million people are affected some 400,000 of them Texans, the weather service said. The weather has left hundreds of travelers stranded in Colorado and knocked out power in Oklahoma.

The storm system moved into the region late Thursday, and by early Friday officials had closed Interstate 40 east and west of Amarillo and U.S. 287 north of the city early Friday. All major highways around Dalhart in the northwest corner of the Panhandle also have been closed.

The National Guard has been placed on alert to help blizzard-stranded motorists if needed, a DPS dispatcher in Amarillo said. Schools and businesses were shutting down in the Texas Panhandle, and most flights were canceled at the Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport on Friday, officials said.

The National Weather Service is predicting snowfall in Texas of up to a foot and winds gusting to more than 45 mph that could lead to zero visibility and snowdrifts of up to 20 feet before the storm wanes near midday Saturday.

A blizzard is not just heavy snow, said weather service meteorologist J.J. Brost in Amarillo. It’s got to be combined with sustained or frequent winds of at least 35 mph and blowing snow that limits visibility to a quarter-mile or less.

“It’s certainly an intense event and we’re not going to get this every year, but the fact that it’s occurring in March is not surprising,” Brost said. “

Seasonal moisture in the air, mixed with cold winds rushing down from Canada make conditions ideal for creating such a storm, he said.

Amarillo, located about 365 miles northwest of Dallas, is the largest city in the Texas Panhadle. The worst conditions in Texas are from Plainview north through Amarillo and to the state line borders, officials said.

Children across the 20-county region got to sleep in Friday as schools closed. The 30,000-school Amarillo school district made the decision to shut down Thursday night. Major businesses are also closed as the area hunkers down and stays inside to keep warm.

“It’s blowing furiously,” said Jerry Billington of Faith City Ministries of the whiteout in downtown Amarillo. The 200-bed shelter is one of several setting up extra beds and encouraging homeless people to come in off the street.

“There should be no reason for anybody to sleep out,” he said, “but some of them choose to do that.”