Blizzard Leaves Denver at a Standstill

Denver is trapped beneath a blanket of snow for a second day. The airport is closed, streets are empty and long stretches of highway are impassable.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The big winter storm that is working its way through the middle of the country right now is leaving behind stranded travelers, closed businesses, icy roads and lots and lots of snow. It hit the plains states and New Mexico, and it delivered more than two feet of snow to Denver.

NORRIS: That city was, for the most part, shut down for a second day today. Schools, businesses and government offices were closed. And Denver International Airport was, too, leaving nearly 5,000 travelers stuck.

Mr. BRANDON ALTMAN(ph): Everything's shut down until noon tomorrow. I've heard some people talking about their nearest flight is out of here by Saturday. Even Christmas Eve.

NORRIS: That's Brandon Altman. He's catching up on his reading for school while he's stranded. We'll hear more from him in just a minute but first, here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY: The airport was expecting more than a million travelers this week but that was before the holiday blizzard of 2006 arrived. Jenny Block(ph) is with the USO at Denver International. She says plenty of soldiers on leave were caught up in the mess.

Ms. JENNY BLOCK (Denver International Airport): We had 120 plus guests last night spend the night and they just pulled up a chair or the floor and made themselves as comfortable as possible for the night.

BRADY: Block says the USO is nearly out of food. A few chips and cookies left. That's not a huge deal though, because the rest of the airport has plenty of food and the bars have been pretty popular.

United is the largest airline at the airport and it cancelled more than 2,000 flights yesterday and today. Megan McCarthy(ph) with United says Denver's problems caused a ripple effect.

Ms. MEGAN McCARTHY (United Airlines): Denver is our second-largest hub so we have flights coming to Denver from all over our domestic network. So all those airports are also impacted because people are trying to get to Denver.

BRADY: In downtown Denver, it was eerily quiet except for the occasional snowmobile. Most people remained upbeat, probably because there are no reported deaths related to the storm. There are plenty of traffic accidents, though, and the freeways remain littered with abandoned cars. All the malls are closed and many of the grocery stores, but not this one.

Unidentified Man: Good morning.

Mr. SHAWN JOHNSON(ph) (Owner, Papa's Grocery): How you doing today?

Unidentified Man: Good.

Unidentified Woman: Good. We're glad you're open.

Mr. SHAWN JOHNSON: Yeah. We're glad to be here.

BRADY: The owners of Papa's Grocery, Shawn and Stephanie Johnson(ph) spent the night in their store.

Ms. STEPHANIE JOHNSON (Owner, Papa's Grocery): Slept on a mattress. Had our blankets. Pillows. Everything. Spit bath this morning. We have everything. Deodorant. Hairspray. I smell pretty good.

BRADY: A steady stream of customers filed into the store today, many with snow caked around their pant legs. At least a few city residents have wondered, where the snowplows were? Speaking on KUSA TV today, Mayor John Hickenlooper said there wasn't much he could do.

Mayor JOHN HICKENLOOPER (Mayor, Denver): If we had double the amount of snow plows for all that, for the last 24, almost 48 hours while it's been snowing, they wouldn't do us any good because the snow keeps falling on top of you and blowing over. So you could have three times as many snowplows, makes no difference.

BRADY: Typically, the bus system keeps running during snowstorms. Sometimes it's the only way to get around safely. But this time, Scott Reid(ph) with the Regional Transportation District says once a few dozen busses got stuck in the snow, they called it quits, too. He says the light rail is still running, but without passengers.

Mr. SCOTT REID (Regional Transportation District): The overhead wires have a tendency to freeze up if you don't have trains going through periodically and that's the same with the switches at the major intersections there.

BRADY: Reid says snowdrifts at light rail stations are four and five feet high. Add the zero-degree, wind chill factor and it's not a good place for people to wait for trains.

Back out at the airport, a few large busses were able to get through the snow now and they've been taking holiday travelers to downtown hotels. While Denver's downtown is a lovely place to visit, most of those heading there expected to be home by now.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

BLOCK: Brandon Altman(ph) is among the many people stranded at Denver International Airport and we've reached him on his cell phone. Brandon, where are you exactly?

Mr. BRANDON ALTMAN: Well, I'm - let's see. Next to Gate B36, just sort of looking at the snow outside of the window.

BLOCK: Now where were you trying to get from and to?

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, I was flying from New York to Denver. I was trying to get to Colorado Springs, where my Dad was going to pick me up to take me back to Penrose, Colorado, which is where I am spending my holiday season.

BLOCK: You hope.

Mr. ALTMAN: Yes, I hope.

BLOCK: Where have you been sleeping?

Mr. ALTMAN: On the floor. I took a nap earlier today between two of the benches, the chairs sort of pushed together. But staking out, next to the Customer Service.

Mr. ALTMAN: Ensuring that we could be placed on standby. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen today.

BLOCK: You know, I think if you wanted to be Pollyannaish about this, you could say boy, this is a great opportunity to make some new friends and have a little community there altogether.

Mr. ALTMAN: Yeah, it's true. But, you know, everyone's going through their own little debacles. I mean, people haven't exactly been wanting to talk. Actually, I met one individual who was actually in the situation where, you know, her child, she doesn't have any diapers and, you know, she was telling me about it and I was just sort of lending that ear. But everyone else is irritable and I've just sort of been keeping to myself, reading my books.

BLOCK: Well, Brandon Altman, I hope you and everyone else gets out of there just as soon as you can.

Mr. ALTMAN: Oh, well, thank you very much.

BLOCK: Brandon Altman is one of the thousands of passengers who are stuck at Denver International Airport.

Now to Joe Martin, who's the owner and manager of the Comfort Inn that's just off I-70 in Limon, Colorado and Mr. Martin, I understand you have a full house.

Mr. JOE MARTIN (Comfort Inn): Yes, we do. We have 50 rooms and they're booked.

BLOCK: Do you have ways of getting any supplies in? I guess not, if roads are closed. You have to make do with what you have.

Mr. MARTIN: Not really. As a matter of fact, we had a guest that asked for this morning's paper and obviously they could not get here. They come out of Denver and they could not get here.

But we have food. We don't have a restaurant in our hotel. We have a continental breakfast set up. We've got food.

BLOCK: Well, how are people there holding up?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, the adults are having a hard time but the kids are having fun. They're swimming in the pool and we just watched some kids out the window playing in the snow. When they dropped to their knees, the snow was up to their armpits. So they were having fun. It's the adults who are impatient and don't like being stranded.

BLOCK: What's your technique when you've got those impatient adults who are just reaching their wits' end. What do you do with them?

Mr. MARTIN: You know, I tell them to look outside. And I said, let me reverse the tables and you tell me when the wind's going to quit. And they said well, I don't know. I said, exactly.

You know, we've seen these and we cope with them the best we can. It's the customers who have a hard time with it.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Martin, hang in there.

Mr. MARTIN: Yep, we will.

BLOCK: Appreciate your time.

Mr. MARTIN: You're quite welcome, Melissa.

BLOCK: Joe Martin is the owner and manager of the Comfort Inn in Limon, Colorado. That's about 85 miles southeast of Denver.

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