- Winter Storm Ulmer continued to hammer the upper Midwest on Thursday.
- Two deaths have been attributed to the storm.
- The National Guard was asked to help more than 1,000 stranded drivers on Colorado highways.
- Hundreds of miles of interstates were closed in the northern Plains as conditions worsened.
- Denver International Airport canceled more than 700 flights on Thursday.
As Winter Storm Ulmer raged, the Colorado National Guard braved wind gusts to nearly 100 mph and whiteout conditions in vehicles with tank-like tracks to rescue hundreds of motorists stranded on paralyzed roadways across the state.
Dozens of the stranded drivers had been rescued, the Colorado National Guard reported.
In all, the so-called bomb cyclone forced the closure of interstates in six states, stranded hundreds of vehicles and led to two deaths. At Denver International Airport, more than 700 flights were canceled Thursday, a day after nearly 1,400 flights into and out of the hub were called off, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware.
(MORE: 4 Jaw-Dropping Facts About Ulmer)
The more than 1,100 motorists in blizzard conditions on Colorado highways became stranded on Wednesday, prompting the El Paso County Commission Chairman to sign an emergency declaration enabling the county to ask for state and national help, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was activated to assist with search, rescue and life safety operations, the state’s Emergency Operations Center announced.
Among the stranded were about 200 vehicles along Interstate 25 near Colorado Springs, according to the Associated Press.
In addition, about 100 vehicles were stranded along a 7-mile stretch of Colorado State Highway 86 between Kiowa and Elizabeth in neighboring Elbert County, Kiowa Volunteer Fire Department Chief Gerry Lamansky told KDVR-TV.
Bria McKenzie, 22, was traveling with her mother, brother and sister, when she became stuck in her car on a hilly road in Colorado Springs. She told the AP they were stuck in their car for two hours before being rescued, adding that she was too afraid to make the short walk to a nearby hospital because of the blinding snow and blasting wind.
“It was just like every second you were out there, it felt like parts of you were just freezing,” she said.
Firefighters used wildland brush fire trucks, ambulances and pickups trucks with four-wheel drive to reach the stranded vehicles, Lamansky told the Denver Post.
“We are getting to them one-by-one,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there, I don’t believe our advice — to stay off the roads — was heeded very well.”
Emergency warming shelters were set up near many of the highways.
Earlier in the day, a Colorado State Patrol corporal was struck and killed while he was outside his vehicle helping with a car that had slid off Interstate 76 in Weld County, the patrol reported. About 11:20 a.m., a Volvo lost control and ran into 52-year-old Corporal Daniel Groves. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The Volvo’s driver had moderate injuries and was also taken to the hospital, the patrol said. Authorities have asked crash witnesses to come forward so they can gather more information about the deadly incident.
“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.”
A lineman making repairs was reportedly killed around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday near Hereford, Texas, KCBD reported. No other details were given.
A large pileup was reported Wednesday on southbound lanes of I-25 near the Palmer Divide south of Denver. A video posted to social media shows dozens of vehicles piled up in blizzard conditions.
KDVR reported more than 40 vehicles were involved in the pileup in Douglas County. Parts of Interstate 25 was closed from Centennial to Monument, south of Denver. North of the city, about 22 miles of I-25 near the Wyoming border are also shut down because of the weather conditions.
“This is about as bad as I’ve ever been in … as I’ve been in winter-wise in the 27 years at The Weather Channel,” meteorologist Mike Seidel said during a live report from near the Denver airport. “I’m trying to run back every snow storm I’ve ever been in with a lot of wind. And I can think of maybe the Duluth Blizzard that was on Feb 29, 2012, and … this is right up there with that as far as the wind. That had heavier snowfall though.”
The storm continued to hammer parts of Nebraska and the Dakotas Thursday with heavy snow and blasting winds with gusts that limited visibility across the region.
On Thursday, North Dakota joined other states in closing interstates. According to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, I-94 is closed from Fargo to Bismarck and I-29 is closed from Fargo to Canada.
On Wednesday, more than 500 miles of Interstate 80 was closed from Rock Springs, Wyoming, to Kearney, Nebraska, the two state’s transportation departments reported. I-25 was also closed for more than 300 miles from Buffalo, Wyoming, to the Colorado border, but stretches of the freeway were reopening Thursday.
(MORE: Winter Storm Ulmer ‘Bombs’ Out)
Also in Colorado, Interstate 70 was closed in both directions from Aurora to Goodland, Kansas, because of the treacherous conditions. A second stretch of I-70 west of Denver also was closed in both directions. Multiple stretches of Interstate 76 were closed from northeast of Denver to the Wyoming state line. Other highways and roads were closed throughout the state.
In addition to I-80, all state highways and interstates remain closed in the Nebraska Panhandle. Several state highways in western Kansas closed Wednesday afternoon.
Interstate 90 in South Dakota was completely shut down from Wall to Chamberlain because of the conditions. A section from Rapid City to the Wyoming border was reopened on Thursday.
South Dakota’s Gov. Kristi Noem ordered state government offices closed Thursday in 39 central and western counties.
More than 60,000 Colorado customers remained without power Thursday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us. At one point during the worst of the storm, more than a quarter-million homes and businesses were in the dark.
At least five hospitals in Denver were using backup generators for power because of the electrical outages, according to the Denver Post.
Ahead of the storm, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency, which enabled the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency to coordinate response and recovery activities with local governments and other state agencies, according to a press release.