Video: Wild weather moves through Plains

updated 3/23/2009 9:29:54 PM ET 2009-03-24T01:29:54

A blizzard shut down major highways Monday in Wyoming and South Dakota, and meteorologists said one mountainous area might get as much as 40 inches of snow.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial closed because of the icy, blinding weather in South Dakota's rugged Black Hills. Temperature plummeted as the storm moved eastward and wind gusted to more than 60 mph.

Some residents of hard-hit northeast Wyoming said they had heeded forecasts and stocked up on groceries.

"We are well prepared for a day or two of blizzard conditions," Marcia Shanks said in a telephone interview from her home in Gillette.

The National Weather Service posted a blizzard warning for eastern Wyoming and western sections of South Dakota and Nebraska, with a winter storm warning for much of central Wyoming and mountain sections of Colorado.

While the western part of Nebraska got snow on Monday, at least five tornadoes briefly touched down in the north-central and eastern parts of the state. Damage was reported to a few houses and farms in the Lincoln area. Television station KPTM in Omaha reported that five people were hurt, citing the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

Wyoming shut down a 290-mile stretch of Interstate 25 from Cheyenne to Buffalo and a 165-mile section of Interstate 90 between Sheridan and the Wyoming state line because of snow. South Dakota closed the gates on a 250-mile stretch of I-90 from the Wyoming state line to Chamberlain. Parts of I-80 in southeast Wyoming also were closed.

"There were places of maybe one-vehicle length visibility, just absolutely whiteout conditions," David King, emergency management coordinator for Campbell County in northeast Wyoming.

A Wyoming Highway Patrol dispatcher said a one-vehicle rollover on I-80 left one person dead. It wasn't known if weather was a factor.

A snowstorm in Colorado's high country led to multiple accidents Monday on Interstate 70 over Vail Pass, blocking it in both directions. The state Department of Transportation warned drivers to expect delays.  

Poor visibility and heavy drifting forced the South Dakota Department of Transportation to pull its snowplows off the roads Monday afternoon in several counties. The department said its plows would be back out Tuesday morning if conditions allow.

Slow going
No-travel advisories were issued for parts of central and northeast Wyoming, northwest South Dakota and southwest North Dakota. Colorado closed about 30 miles of state highway in that state's northeast corner.

Numerous schools called off classes altogether or closed early.

The weather service said accumulations of up to 20 inches were possible in parts of Wyoming and northwest South Dakota, but 30 to 40 inches was possible in the northern Black Hills, where Rapid City, S.D., recorded a gust to 63 mph.

Up to 18 inches of snow was forecast from southwest North Dakota to the north-central part of the state, according to the weather service.

The heavy, wet snow is expected along with thunder and lightning, a phenomenon called thundersnow, meteorologist Joshua Scheck said.

In Wyoming, about 10 inches of snow fell in Gillette and about 8 inches in Casper by Monday afternoon. Casper Mountain, just outside Casper, had 19 inches. Winds gusting to 50 mph built 4-foot drifts.

The Gillette-Campbell County Airport shut down operations, and the Gillette News-Record canceled its Monday afternoon print edition because of the storm.

Several counties opened emergency shelters for stranded travelers. In eastern Wyoming, about 100 people sought refuge at the National Guard armory in Wheatland, said Jane Carlson, emergency management coordinator for Platte County.

"We do have cots and some mattresses. They're not the most comfortable in the world. We do provide coffee and water for them, and we do have (packaged food)," Carlson said.

The storm was fueled by moist air flowing in from the south and much colder air from the north, the weather service said.

"To give you an idea of the storm's intensity, it's 28 degrees at the Rapid City airport and 64 at Winner (S.D.). That's a distance of 170 miles," Susan Sander of the weather service said at mid-afternoon in Rapid City. Just 24 hours earlier, Rapid City had measured a record high of 77 degrees.

Mount Rushmore closed
About 20 miles southwest of Rapid City, Mount Rushmore as closed because of the storm, said Superintendent Gerard Baker.

Intense spring snowstorms are common in Wyoming, said weather service meteorologist Andy Church.

"It looks pretty average in terms of how we measure intensity," he said of Monday's storm.

The spring storm came in the midst of calving season for cattle ranchers.

"The challenge we have is when the calves are born they're obviously wet to begin with. Then with the cold and the wind it just makes it hard to get them dried off and warmed up. That's critical to their surviving," said Adele Harty, an Extension Service livestock educator at Philip, S.D.

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