A “bomb cyclone” is dumping snow and heavy rain on the central United States, stranding travelers, leaving tens of thousands without electricity and leading to a police officer’s death in Colorado.
The storm’s center was over Iowa and Nebraska early Thursday, and while it did its worst damage in the Plains, it will continue delivering dangerous weather conditions to 105 million people who are under some sort of watch, warning or advisory as it moves east.
A bomb cyclone occurs when there is a rapid pressure drop, with a decrease of at least 24 millibars — a measure of atmospheric pressure — over 24 hours. This storm dropped 33 millibars from Tuesday into Wednesday.
The storm brings with it all manner of nastiness. While Colorado is seeing blizzard conditions, Iowa and Illinois are experiencing flooding, especially in areas along the Mississippi River. Nebraska has been hit hard by flooding, while the Platte, Elkhorn and Missouri rivers have topped their banks in Missouri.
Winds of more than 100 mph have slammed into San Augustin Pass, New Mexico, and Pine Springs, Texas. Through early Thursday, residents of Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma can expect winds of between 30 and 50 mph, with gusts in some areas reaching 65 mph, according to forecasts.
45 inches of snow in southern Colorado
Adding to the misery of those in its path, the bomb cyclone threatens to bring severe storms, flash flooding, dense fog and possible tornadoes as it treks across the central part of the country.
Tornado watches have been issued in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
About 175,000 people are without power, most of them in Colorado and Texas. Several Colorado school districts closed Wednesday and Thursday, with Denver Public Schools citing “severe storm, power outages across the city and poor road conditions.”
Denver is one of the hardest-hit areas, though Wolf Creek Pass, near the New Mexico border, has recorded 45 inches of snow. Blizzard and avalanche warnings have been issued across Colorado.
The snow will keep falling over the Dakotas and western Minnesota, with some areas seeing as much as a foot of the white stuff. Parts of South Dakota have already gotten 15 inches of snow.
Wyoming closed state offices in Cheyenne, while South Dakota’s governor ordered state offices closed in 39 central and western counties because of the storm.
About 250 vehicles were stuck early Thursday on a roadway in central Colorado, and some drivers have been waiting hours to be rescued, said Jacqueline Kirby, spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
As of 11 p.m. Wednesday, “we still had 1,100 people stranded who had been there anywhere from an hour to seven hours,” Kirby said. “We’ve had a variety of calls. We have diabetic individuals. We have people with children. We have a pregnant woman.”
The weather has been so severe in the state that law enforcement officers had to abandon their vehicles and take shelter themselves instead of responding to the high volume of accidents, officials said.
“We are at the point where we are rescuing rescuers out there,” Elbert County Manager Sam Albrecht said.
In Weld County, north of Denver, State Patrol Cpl. Daniel Groves, 52, was struck by a car Wednesday while assisting a motorist whose car slid off Interstate 76, according to the state police. Groves, on the job since 2007, was declared dead at a hospital.
High speed and poor conditions are possible factors being investigated, police said. No charges had been filed.
On Wednesday, 100 vehicles were involved in an accident on Interstate 25 near Wellington, Colorado, according to Wellington Fire Protection.
There were no fatalities, according to the fire department’s Facebook page, but there were injuries ranging from minor to serious. Emergency responders came from both Colorado and Wyoming.
Handing out blankets at airports
More than 3,700 flights have been canceled over two days. About 2,000 flights were canceled Wednesday, and at least 1,700 had been dropped by early Thursday, according to data from the flight-tracking site Flightaware.com.
Denver International Airport was hit the hardest. All runways were closed Wednesday because of icy conditions and extremely poor visibility caused by the intense storm, the airport said on Twitter. Roads around the airport were also closed or blocked by traffic accidents for much of the day.
Airport employees handed out blankets to accommodate passengers who were stuck overnight.
“For those passengers joining us overnight, we want you to be as comfortable as possible. Please stop by the customer service booths on Concourses A, B or at baggage claim 9 in the terminal and pick up a blanket,” an airport tweet said Wednesday evening.
The airport announced on Twitter early Thursday that four of its six terminals have reopened, but more than 700 flights into or out of Denver have been canceled for the day.
The storm will move east Thursday, bringing what the National Weather Service calls “a Great Plains cyclone of historic proportions.