Image: Fallen tree in Denver
David Zalubowski  /  AP
A broken limb snapped by heavy snow blocks a street in Denver, Colo., on Wednesday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/24/2010 5:45:06 PM ET 2010-03-24T21:45:06

A heavy, wet spring snowstorm forced airlines to cancel scores of flights at the Denver airport on Wednesday and left thousands of people without power.

Tree branches sagged and snapped under the weight of the snow. Dozens of schools canceled classes and the state Legislature declared a snow day, canceling House and Senate sessions as well as committee meetings.

By evening, the storm was headed east into the Oklahoma Panhandle and north Texas. Farther south, the system was expected to bring thunderstorms Wednesday night in Dallas.

Denver International Airport estimated up to 5,000 people spent Tuesday night there after their flights were canceled.

"This is my last time flying unless I grow wings," said Elizabeth Kinder of Great Falls, Mont., who slept in the airport's chapel.

She and her husband were flying home from San Jose, Calif., when they got stranded in Denver Tuesday night.

The airport's three busiest airlines — United, Frontier and Southwest — together canceled nearly 160 arrivals and departures Wednesday.

NBC affiliate KUSA-TV reported that the flight disruptions began Tuesday when planes were sitting too long on the tarmac after getting de-iced so they had to return to terminals and get de-iced again. That, in turn, caused the airport to put a hold on arrivals until the departure backlog was cleared.

Highway traffic was light for Denver's morning rush.

Video: Spring blizzard

"Some folks maybe decided they didn't have to travel, so they just stayed home," said Gene Towne of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The National Weather Service said 23 inches of snow fell by Wednesday morning in Jefferson County west of Denver and about 9 inches in Denver.

Most major ski areas reported 5 to 7 inches of new snow. Eldora — just west of Boulder — reported 18 inches.

The storm boosted the mountain snowpack, which accounts for much of Colorado's water when it melts during the warm months. As of Wednesday, the snow totals were below average in the northern half of the state and roughly average in the south.

About 36,400 customers lost power at various times after snow started falling Tuesday, Xcel Energy spokesman Tom Henley said.

Most had electricity restored by the end of the business day. Snow dripped from utility poles and tree limbs as soon as the storm moved out.

Barbara Foley, 70, of Englewood rode the bus to work Wednesday in downtown Denver after she woke up to find about a foot of snow on her car. She was happy the bus arrived on time, with a driver in a good mood.

"I told the driver, 'You're just as good as the mailman,'" she said. "He said, 'No, lady, we're better.'"

In the mountains, U.S. 6 over Loveland Pass was closed for avalanche control and because of hazardous conditions. Farther west, Colorado 65 near Grand Junction also was closed for avalanche control.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Storm dumps two feet of snow on Denver

  1. Closed captioning of: Storm dumps two feet of snow on Denver

    two: the postal service .

    >>> spring may be a few days old, but it's not how it looked in denver today. fierce snowstorm left the city a mess, caused chaos for travelers trying to get to or from those spring ski vacations. an estimated 5,000 people stuck at the airport as almost two feet of wet snow fell in some areas of the metro area .

    >>> tonight we note the deaths

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