Colorado blizzard continues to disrupt daily life for hundreds of thousands, despite sunshine

Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans on Monday started to dig themselves out of feet of snow dumped during a record-setting winter storm that continued to shutter businesses and schools, close major highways and leave thousands without electricity.

Despite its late start Saturday evening, the storm — Denver’s fourth-largest ever — dropped more than two feet of snow along the Interstate 25 corridor and blasted enough wind across the state’s most populous region to trap hundreds of cars on highways and ensnare the reinforced rescue vehicles sent to save them.

Even snowplows struggled in the wet, heavy accumulation. Some residents in northern Colorado had been without power for more than 24 hours, even as utility workers scrambled to repair power lines and poles.

“The trend for that storm, even within the first few hours of the snow starting on Saturday, is that it just kept getting slower, which kept pushing back the start time of the snow,” National Weather Service meteorologist Zach Hiris said. “That delayed onset definitely messed with our initial forecast but our final amounts were pretty good — slower to start, but also slower to get out of here.”

Many communities in the foothills west of Interstate 25 saw about 3 feet of snowfall, including a high of 48.5 inches recorded on Buckhorn Mountain west of Fort Collins. Denver recorded 27.1 inches of snow — the biggest storm in the city since 2003. Some snow drifts near Greeley and on the east side of Aurora were more than 4 feet tall.

More than 18,700 people still did not have electricity Monday morning, though as of 4:30 p.m. the number of people without power had dropped to about 9,000. Most of the outages clustered around Greeley and Fort Collins and repair workers struggled through deep snow to access areas that needed repairs.

Power woes and indoor camping

Some northern Colorado residents had been without power for more than a day.

Johnny Aguiniga’s house in Greeley lost power around 7 a.m. Sunday, and he said he’d seen no sign of it coming back on Monday. He said his household had been layering up and sleeping inside a tent in their living room to keep warm.

“It’s a basic camping tent, but really helps a lot at night,” Aguiniga said, noting his house was 45 degrees inside on Monday.

Cherie Meacham, of Eaton, went about 30 hours without power, she said. Luckily she had both a wood-burning and gas stove.

“My man couldn’t make it in (to work) today,” she said. “He works about an hour away in Loveland and takes (highway) 14, which has been closed. Roads out east are bad with no wind barrier.”

Employees of the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association were working to restore power, but even big trucks with tire chains were struggling to reach damaged poles and wires, said Amy Rosier, vice president of member and government relations.

“Today, we’re getting a much clearer picture of the damage, how many broken poles we have, and what it’s going to take to get there,” Rosier said. “At this point, it’s not a question of manpower, we have plenty of manpower, it’s getting to the areas.”

The Denver area, in comparison, had relatively few outages during the storm. That’s because northern Colorado saw more snow and higher winds than Denver, said Michelle Aguayo, spokeswoman for Xcel Energy.

“Had the eye of that storm been a little farther south, we might have seen similar damage in Denver,” she said.

Though snow stopped falling over Denver by early Monday morning, conditions forced major disruptions to travel across the region. Sections of both Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 remained closed Monday morning and the snow stopped all RTD bus service, though rail lines were able to reopen Monday afternoon.

Denver International Airport kept all of its runways closed Monday morning and canceled 1,000 flights scheduled to depart that day — about 60% of those scheduled. The airport reopened some runways Monday afternoon but staff said flight disruptions could continue into Tuesday morning. Airlines canceled about 2,800 flights out of the airport between Saturday and Monday.

Rescuing the rescuers

Police in Denver and Aurora rescued hundreds of drivers trapped in their vehicles on impassable roads during the storm. Denver police rescued more than 100 people stuck in the city and at Denver International Airport, including dozens of cars trapped on Peña Boulevard, Division Chief Ron Thomas said. Officers also helped about two dozen people without homes find shelter during the storm.

Aurora police officers also worked through the night and rescued at least 212 people, even as officers became stuck themselves.

The department deployed its military surplus transport vehicle and its armored Bearcat, but even the multi-ton reinforced vehicles got stuck multiple times, Lt. Chris Amsler said. Officers in the military surplus vehicle — officially called a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle — had to wait several hours at one point for a front loader to dig them out. Police also helped rescue five firetrucks and six ambulances and later had to enlist the help of the Colorado National Guard.

Some drivers were stuck for more than six hours, Amsler said, including more than a dozen people who were trying to travel from Denver International Airport to nearby hotels.

“These poor folks are not from Colorado and weren’t aware of what the conditions can be” near the airport, Amsler said.

Sometimes the rescue workers had to rely on AAA for help, AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley said. The problem is that vehicles sent to help were getting stuck. McKinley said that AAA had one call Sunday for a stranded driver near Fort Collins, and that the truck that went to rescue that driver got stuck, as did the truck that went to rescue the first truck and driver.

Despite Monday’s sunshine, several metro school districts, including the Douglas County School District and Adams 12 Five Star Schools, announced closures would extend into Tuesday. Denver Public Schools, per the district’s new policy, will follow Monday’s snow day with remote education on Tuesday since travel is expected to remain difficult within the city.

Temperatures could rise into the 50s this week, but relatively cool days and chilly nights mean much of the snow isn’t going anywhere soon. The Colorado State Patrol warned drivers to be wary of slush and melted snow that will freeze when the sun sets and temperatures fall.

More snow is expected in Denver beginning Tuesday afternoon, though forecasters only expect an inch. Most of the snow is expected to fall in southern Colorado, which was largely unaffected by this weekend’s storm. Areas west of Interstate 25 south of Pueblo could see up to a foot of snow, according to the National Weather Service.

“We obviously won’t be coming close to what we saw this weekend,” said Hiris, the meteorologist.

Denver Post staff writers Alex Burness, Conrad Swanson, Erica Hunzinger and Laura Studley contributed to this report. 

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