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Plains blizzard strands motorists on closed highways

In a bizarre twist, tornadoes menace Nebraska and Idaho west of the snow storm.

March 25, 2009|Associated Press

OMAHA — Wind-blown snow whipped across the northern Plains on Tuesday, closing major highways, before a powerful storm that had stalled over western Nebraska and South Dakota moved northeastward.

In Montana, the Army National Guard dispatched two helicopters to help find motorists stranded by a snowstorm in the southeastern part of the state.

"We do know we have some motorists out there, but we don't know where. So we have a serious situation," said Charity Watt Levis, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Transportation.

Crews rescued stranded motorists, including a family of three, that had been trapped on a highway in northeast Wyoming.

Up to 30 inches of snow had piled up in South Dakota's rugged Black Hills, and the storm system generated tornadoes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 27, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
North Plains blizzard: The headline on an article in Wednesday's Section A stated that tornadoes had touched down west of a winter storm in Nebraska and Idaho. The tornadoes were east of the storm, in Nebraska and Iowa.

The blowing snow cut visibility and piled in drifts as high as 4 feet in parts of Wyoming.

"We have wind gusts to 62 mph at Valentine [Neb.] this morning," said National Weather Service meteorologist Clifford Cole in North Platte, Neb.

A wind gust was clocked at 90 mph in Perkins County, S.D., and Hettinger, in southwestern North Dakota, measured a gust of 55 mph.

Much of western South Dakota was shut down Tuesday for a second day, with Interstate 90 closed from Chamberlain to Gillette, Wyo., a distance of 345 miles. The South Dakota Transportation Department reopened the route Tuesday night.

Visibility was so poor that the South Dakota Department of Transportation pulled snowplows off the roads.

"It's a safety concern primarily," the DOT's Gary Engel said. "In the November blizzard we didn't do our closure quite as soon in that one, and we had trucks stopped right on the road. We had trucks stuck in the ditch because they couldn't see where they were going."

North Dakota closed about 120 miles of Interstate 94 between Bismarck and Dickinson.

"The plows couldn't just even be out there. They just couldn't see what they were doing," Highway Patrol Capt. Eric Pederson said.

In the turbulent warmer air on the eastern side of the huge storm, tornadoes were reported Monday in eastern Nebraska and Iowa. No major damage was reported.

Having a blizzard on one end of Nebraska and tornadoes on the other isn't all that unusual, weather service meteorologist Jim Meyer said.

In early spring, he said, "Mother Nature is still trying to decide, 'Hey, do I want to have winter or get into spring and summer?' . . . You could draw a line roughly down the middle of Nebraska yesterday afternoon."

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