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Winter storm drops snow, sleet on Southwest

December 19, 2011 |  4:24 pm

A powerful winter storm dumped heavy snow across sections of the Southwest and Great Plains on Monday, stranding motorists in New Mexico and Oklahoma and prompting blizzard warnings in Texas two days before the official start of winter.

Forecasters warned late Monday that up to 18 inches of snow was expected across the region as the storm traveled toward the Texas Panhandle and parts of Kansas and Colorado.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced late Monday that he had activated state military personnel and equipment ahead of the storm as a precautionary measure to protect Panhandle roads and communities. 

“I urge Texans in the path of this winter storm to remain cautious and heed warnings from local officials as this severe winter storm may create dangerous driving conditions for holiday travel,” Perry said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor this storm to ensure state resources are available to assist impacted communities.”

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for several Texas counties, with up to 6  inches of snow expected and wind gusts up to 50 mph. 

Although the storm could make roads hazardous for holiday travelers, weather experts noted that in bone-dry Texas, farmers and ranchers were thankful for the moisture.

The Texas drought, which has lasted more than a year, forced many ranchers to sell their cattle or send them to leased land in Nebraska, Wyoming and other states where pastures are still green.

Those that remain in West Texas often rely on a diet of winter wheat, which grows like a green carpet, low to the ground.

Snow sits atop the wheat, allowing it to flourish, said Tabatha Seymore, observing program leader for the National Weather Service in Amarillo, who spoke with The Times on Monday.

“They look for these good snows, all this moisture we’re getting, to sit on the ground and keep it wet,” Seymore said of farmers and ranchers. “The more snow we have on it, the better it grows. It’s a lifesaver for the cattle industry here to have this.”

By late Monday, she said, Amarillo was already seeing rain, snow and sleet as the temperature dropped to 35 degrees, although the snow had yet to stick.

“We’re waiting for it to turn over here and see some accumulations,” Seymore said.

About 120 miles to the northwest in Texline, along the New Mexico border, about 6 inches of snow had fallen, she said, while Dalhart, about 85 miles northwest, had received 2 to 4 inches, with winds gusting up to 45 mph.

Seymore said officials in the Oklahoma Panhandle were dealing with numerous accidents and had to close a few highways because of snowy conditions.

She said the storm, which originated in Southern California and drew moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, is expected to blow over by morning. Another, weaker storm system is expected in the region later this week.


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Photo: Traffic heads slowly south on I-25 in Santa Fe on Monday as snow accumulates. Credit: Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal