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Blizzards crawling across central U.S. blamed for at least 6 deaths, halting pre-holiday travel

Fierce winds and snow that caused fatal accidents and shuttered highways in five states crawled deeper into the central U.S. early Tuesday, with forecasters warning that pre-holiday travel would be difficult if not impossible across the region.

Hotels were filling up quickly along major roadways from eastern New Mexico to Kansas and travel throughout the region was difficult.

Nearly 100 rescue calls came in from motorists in northern Texas as blizzard conditions forced closed part of Interstate 40, a major east-west route, Monday night.

New Mexico shut down a portion of Interstate 25, the major route heading northeast of Santa Fe into Colorado and Clayton police dispatcher Cindy Blackwell said her phones were “ringing off the hook” with calls from numerous motorists stuck on rural roads.

About 25 centimetres of snow had fallen in western Kansas before dawn Tuesday, and several more inches, along with strong wind gusts, were expected, National Weather Service meteorologist Marc Russell said.

“We’re talking about whiteout conditions,” he said.

The storm came after much of the country had a relatively mild fall. Except for the October snowstorm blamed for 29 deaths on the East Coast, there’s been little rain or snow. Many of the areas hit Monday enjoyed relatively balmy 15 C temperatures just 24 hours earlier.

Authorities said six people have died as a result of the bad weather. Four people were killed when their vehicle collided with a pickup truck in part of eastern New Mexico where blizzard-like conditions are rare, and a prison guard and inmate died when a prison van crashed along an icy roadway in eastern Colorado.

The snowstorm lumbered into the region Monday, turning roads to ice and reducing visibility to zero. The conditions put state road crews on alert and had motorists taking refuge and early exits off major roads across the region.

Though some drivers were inconvenienced, farmers and meteorologists said the storm was bringing much needed moisture — first rain, then snow as temperatures dropped — to areas of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas that had been parched by a drought that started in the summer of 2010.

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