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Southwestern U.S. braces for blizzard conditions

By Sean Morris, CNN Meteorologist
updated 1:50 PM EST, Tue January 3, 2012
Forecasters issued a blizzard warning for parts of the Southwest, where up to 2 feet of snow is expected to fall on Monday.
Forecasters issued a blizzard warning for parts of the Southwest, where up to 2 feet of snow is expected to fall on Monday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Transportation and emergency crews are on call in New Mexico, officials say
  • A market in Tucumcari, New Mexico, was "packed" Sunday, a resident says
  • "It's going to be a big one for us," another resident says
  • A blizzard warning is out for parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas

(CNN) -- Residents of the Southwest are bracing for a blizzard to kick off the holiday week with heavy snows, strong winds and icy roads that could make driving across the region dangerous.

The snow is forecast to start battering northeast New Mexico in the wee hours of Monday morning. State emergency personnel and transportation crews there are on call, officials say, ready to act if and when the storm hits hard.

Residents, meanwhile, have made their own preparations -- even on an otherwise picturesque day on Sunday, with sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s in some locales.

"I went to the grocery store, and it was packed," said Kevin Mueller of Tucumcari, where he and his wife run the historic Blue Swallow Inn. "People are out there, stocking up."

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The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for much of Monday and Tuesday in large swaths of northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, northern Texas and the Oklahoma Panhandle. Winter storm warnings and winter weather advisories are in effect for other parts of all those states as well.

That means places like Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and Springfield, Colorado, could see up to 2 feet of snow, though 8 inches to 16 inches will more likely be the norm and lesser amounts may fall in other locales. That snow will combine with potent winds, which are expected to be between 25 and 45 mph in spots.

The storm is the product of a "sharp blast of cold air" from the north that will turn rain into snow and possibly lead to "white-out conditions," the weather service said.

"Travel will become dangerous, if not impossible across the region," the weather agency's New Mexico division predicts.

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About 700 New Mexico highway personnel are set to clear the roads, with plenty of road salt also on hand to deal with ice, said Manon Arnett, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department.

Those crews will be out focusing first on interstates, then on other roads, she added. If visibility diminishes or the roadway gets too slick, it will be up to state police as to whether a given thoroughfare is temporarily shut down, according to Arnett.

While the traffic management center opened at 7 p.m. MST (9 p.m. EST) Sunday, New Mexico had not activated its 24-hour emergency center as of then. State emergency management spokesman Nick Piatek said personnel are on call, with food and fuel sources ready to transport to those who need them.

Private companies are trying to get ahead of the storm as well. Drivers have been prepped, trucks have been filled with fuel, and tire chains are available for those at All-Rite Towing and Repair in Tucumcari, according to a long-time employee there who asked only to be identified as Linda.

"It's going to be a big one for us," she said, warning that hard-to-see "black ice" may slip up drivers and electricity outages could close gas stations.

Southeast Colorado is also expected to experience blizzard conditions, with the National Weather Service warning people to "avoid traveling in the area."

"Life-threatening winter weather conditions are expected," the agency said.

No flights had been canceled as of Sunday night at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport in north Texas, said aviation director Patrick Rhodes. But the officials there have talked about what to do next at a planning meeting Sunday, including getting the airport's six snow plows ready.

"We're on the dividing line between 3 inches and 9 inches (of snow)," he said.

Amarillo residents were told to expect rain overnight that will switch to snow Monday afternoon.

In Tucumcari, Mueller said his inn has emptied, like many store shelves, ahead of the storm. He's hoping the wintry weather won't prevent his son, who is set to fly in from Kentucky on Tuesday, from reuniting with the family in time for Christmas.

As for unexpected guests at the inn, Mueller said that he has a plow ready to clear the driveway and rooms are ready for snow-weary travelers.

"We plan to leave our lights on," he said. "If we get calls, we're ready to help."

CNN's Greg Botelho, Jessica Jordan and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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