By JERI CLAUSING and ROXANA HEGEMAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A powerful storm dumped heavy snow across sections of the Southwest and Great Plains Monday, stranding motorists in New Mexico in whiteout conditions and wreaking havoc on holiday travel just two days before the start of winter.
Blizzard warnings forecasting snowfalls of up to 18 inches stretched across the region as the storm barreled through New Mexico toward the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and parts of Kansas and Colorado. In southern Colorado, blizzard conditions were expected to drop between 8 and 16 inches of snow.
In northern New Mexico, all roads from Raton to the Texas and Oklahoma borders about 90 miles east were closed, and an unknown number of motorists were stuck in a blizzard along rural highways, Clayton police dispatcher Cindy Blackwell said. A portion of Interstate 25, the major route heading northeast of Santa Fe into Colorado, was among the roads closed, and even where highways remained open, some drivers were forced to pull off.
"The phones are ringing off the hook" with calls from stranded drivers, Blackwell said. "All I can do is answer the phones and call the state police."
Snow and strong winds also created blizzard-like conditions in far western Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle as the storm moved east.
Vicki Roberts, the owner of the Black Mesa Bed and Breakfast in Kenton, said snow was falling rapidly and high winds had cut visibility in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
"I can't even see the mesa," Roberts said as she peered from the window of her establishment at the foot of Black Mesa, which at 4,973 feet is the highest point in Oklahoma. Forecasts called for the area to get up to 16 inches before the storm moves out Tuesday.
The storm follows a surprisingly mild Sunday across the region. In the Oklahoma Panhandle, residents enjoyed relatively balmy 60-degree temperatures. That changed quickly, and Roberts said Monday morning that she expected to be stuck inside at least through Wednesday if a blizzard was as bad as forecast.
"I have a mail route and I'm not going. You just don't get out in this," Roberts said. "We'll be socked in here. If we lose power we'll just read a book in front of the fireplace."
There were no guests at her inn, so she wasn't worried about them being stuck.
Kansas still had temperatures in the upper 40s on Monday, and thunderstorms moved across the state. Conditions were expected to deteriorate as the day progressed and temperatures fell. Snow was expected to start in the western part of the state overnight.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation said Sunday that crews would work around the clock to keep roads clear, and that they have about 130,000 tons of a salt and sand mixture at their disposal.
The precipitation also could help ease a drought that has plagued Texas for more than year.
"You're not going to find too many people who have to put in winter wheat in this area complaining," said Tabatha Seymore, observing program leader for the National Weather Service in Amarillo, Texas. "It's just wonderful to have this moisture to sit on top of the crop and melt. It's fantastic for them."
Amarillo had rain Monday morning, and snow was supposed to start in the afternoon with several inches of accumulation by Tuesday morning.
Long haul truck driver Frank Pringle stopped at a Love's Travel Stop in Amarillo but said he intended to go as far west as road conditions would allow Monday. His biggest worry was with four-wheel-drive cars because "they will shoot past you and cut you off and you have to hit your brakes. And hitting brakes in the snow is not a good thing."
Clayton, N.M., Police Chief Scott Julian said his town is expecting more than a foot of snow. He was worried drivers passing through town to Colorado or Texas might decide to take their chances with the storm only to find that "they get 10 miles out of town, they can't see in front of them, and they get stranded out there."