National Guard troops used special vehicles with tank-like treads to rescue stranded drivers in Colorado in the wake of a massive storm that unleashed heavy rain and snow on large parts of the United States.
South Dakota’s governor closed all state offices on Thursday as the blizzard conditions moved in, while wind, blowing snow and snow-packed roads also made travel treacherous in western Nebraska.
Heavy rain caused flooding in eastern parts of both states and in Iowa.
The blizzard in Colorado caused widespread power outages, forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights and wreaked havoc on roads as drivers became overwhelmed by blinding snow. A wind gust was clocked at 97mph in Colorado Springs.
The storm also contributed to the death of Corporal Daniel Groves, a Colorado state patrol officer, who was hit and killed by a car as he helped another driver who had slid off a road near Denver.
“It is a tragic reminder that people’s lives are at stake,” said Shoshana Lew, head of the Colorado Department of Transportation. “The best place to be is at home and off the roads.”
About 200 vehicles were disabled on a major road near Colorado Springs, and many more drivers were being rescued on secondary roads, said a transportation department official.
One of the stranded drivers was Bria McKenzie, 22. She was stuck in her car for more than two hours on a hilly road in Colorado Springs with her mother, brother and sister.
She said the snow was so blinding and numbing, and the wind was whipping so hard, that she did not feel safe walking to a hospital that was just down the road.
“It was just like every second you were out there, it felt like parts of you were just freezing,” she said.
Ms McKenzie and her family were eventually rescued by her father in his pick-up truck.
“This is a very epic cyclone,” said Greg Carbin, chief of forecast operations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Centre. “We’re looking at something that will go down in the history books.”
Scores of motorists took refuge at truck stops in eastern Wyoming while blowing snow forced portions of major highways to close in Colorado, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Meanwhile, hundreds of flights were cancelled at Denver International Airport, and nearly 40 were grounded in Colorado Springs.
The storm forced schools and government offices across the state to close for the day and cut power to several hundred thousand homes and businesses.
The culprit was a sudden and severe drop in ground-level air pressure in Colorado, the most pronounced dive since 1950, Mr Carbin said.
It was caused by a combination of the jet stream and normal conditions in the wind shadow of the Rockies.
Air rushed into the low-pressure area and then rose into the atmosphere.
“It’s like a vacuum cleaner, really,” Mr Carbin said. When that much air rushes higher into the atmosphere, it causes severe weather.
Meteorologists call the rapid change in pressure a “bomb cyclone”.
Parts of seven states were under blizzard warnings, and 20 states were under some level of high wind alert, Mr Carbin said.
A tornado in New Mexico ripped roofs from buildings in the small town of Dexter, about 200 miles south-west of Albuquerque. Authorities said five people were hurt, but none of the injuries were life-threatening.