A powerful autumn snowstorm slowly moved out of Colorado Thursday and trudged toward Nebraska and Kansas, causing blizzard-like conditions on the eastern plains and leaving in its wake treacherous roads and canceled flights at Denver's airport.
The storm dropped more than 3 feet of snow in areas of the foothills west of Denver and closed schools and businesses. Roads across the region remained snowpacked and icy, shutting down the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in western South Dakota.
"Big storms like these, they seem to come around every 10 to 12 years," said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
The storm also spread a blanket of white from northern Utah's Wasatch Front to western Nebraska's northern border with South Dakota.
At Denver International Airport, United Airlines, the dominant carrier there with about 400 flights per day, canceled about half its flights to prevent delays and cancellations from spilling over into the next day, spokesman Charlie Hobart said.
Denver-based Frontier Airlines said it canceled 19 flights in and out of Denver, and some flights were delayed by up to four hours.
Airport spokesman Chuck Cannon said crews were using 174 pieces of snow-removal equipment to keep runways and taxiways clear as they dealt with severe wind gusts. Cannon said two departure and two arrival runways were open.
"We're at the mercy of airport conditions at DIA this morning and hope they can recover sufficiently to help us avoid further flight cancellations today," Frontier said early Thursday on its Web site. Frontier said later that conditions at the airport were improving, and although delays were still expected, they hoped to operate the remainder of the day's flights.
The area around the airport received between 11 and 16 inches of snow, the weather service said.
The forecast in Denver Friday called for sunny skies in the afternoon with highs in the upper 30s.
Many schools in metro Denver remained closed Thursday, but the University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where 17.5 inches fell, decided to reopen, a day after sending students home early.
The snow and chilly weather didn't deter people from the prospect of free chicken. More than 100 people camped outside a new Chick-fil-A restaurant in Fort Collins for a chance to win a year's worth of free chicken meals on Thursday morning. They huddled around propane heaters supplied by the store and were invited inside for hot chocolate and cookies just before bedding down in sleeping bags and tents.
Parts of interstates are shut down
As the storm moved toward the nation's central plains, eastern Colorado bared the brunt of its tail end, causing the Colorado Department of Transportation to close Interstate 70 from an area near Denver to Burlington, which is about 15 miles from the Kansas border. Other road closures included a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 80 from Cheyenne to Laramie; and a 35-mile span of Interstate I-25 from Wellington to Cheyenne; and I-80 west of Big Springs to Laramie, Wyo., a stretch spanning almost 200 miles.
"Our biggest problem area now is the eastern plains of Colorado," said CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson. "One of the biggest conditions we're dealing with is the wind because it's affecting visibility."
Wilson said plows had been removing snow, "but the wind is blowing so badly that'll basically just blow more snow onto the roadway."
Wilson said no serious accidents had been reported, likely because shuttered businesses meant fewer cars on the road.
Whiteout conditions were forecast Thursday for plains of Wyoming and western Nebraska, where 12 inches of snow were reported in Rushville and 11 inches in nearby Clinton. Three-foot drifts were reported elsewhere in western Nebraska.
At least three high school football playoff games set for Thursday in Nebraska were postponed.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation said it's unlikely that Interstate 80 across southeastern Wyoming will be reopened on Thursday. About 122 crashes were reported across Wyoming from Wednesday morning to Thursday, but there were no fatalities.
Laramie County District 1 schools have closed and some state offices are opening later in the day. High winds were causing drifting snow and reduced visibility, and two or three inches of snow were expected to fall Thursday, said meteorologist John Griffith with the National Weather Service in Cheyenne.
Record set in Wyoming
The storm that began Tuesday already added enough snow to break records for total snowfall in October for Wyoming. It was the biggest October snowmaker in the Denver area since 1997, said Byron Louis, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Boulder, Colo.
The Utah Highway Patrol reported 51 crashes as the storm moved through on Wednesday.
Winds were a concern farther west, too. Winds gusting through Southern California forced a commuter train line to shut down and knocked a tree onto a car, but no serious injuries have been reported.
The National Weather Service warned of the possibility of further gusts up to 50 mph through Thursday morning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Fire danger warnings were up in some areas.
Back in Wyoming, the storm brought some big rig truckers to a halt.
"The smart thing is to just shut it down and call it a day," said Donnel Farrow of Willingboro, N.J. Farrow was hauling mail from Pennsylvania to Salt Lake City but pulled over his rig at a truck stop Wednesday just east of Cheyenne, Wyo., after a rough drive across Nebraska.