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Colorado residents dig out

Epic snowstorm may prove to be a mixed blessing.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | DENVER | March 22, 2003

Colorado continued to recover Friday from a massive storm that blanketed the state in more than two feet of snow -- a blizzard that may prove to be a curse as well as blessing, said meteorologist Jim Wirshborn with the Mountain States Weather Service in Fort Collins.

The snow stopped falling about noon March 19 in Fort Collins, Wirshborn said, leaving about 28 inches on the ground there.

That was the state average for the "urban corridor," according to the National Weather Service in Boulder. The mountains and foothills saw an average 48 inches of accumulation, and the most snowfall was recorded at Fritz Peak, SW of Boulder, which recieved more than seven feet (87.5 inches).

Denver experienced its second-worst storm in 90 years (the record there was set in December 1913), and the state Capitol closed for the first time in its history.

At least six people died in Colorado and southern Wyoming, including a skier who died Thursday in an avalanche. Roof collapses, felled trees and downed powerlines were prevalent all over the state.

Most main roads were open on Friday, according to Wirshborn, including Interstate 70, which traverses the Continental Divide. The Interstate route had been closed through Thursday because of avalanches.

Avalanche warnings were issued not only for mountainous regions, Wirshborn said, but also for the foothills. In some cases, the warnings extend nearly as far as urban areas -- a highly abnormal situation.

Many smaller streets and mountain passes were still completely buried in snow Friday.

Power outages were reported all over the state, said Steve Roalstadt, a spokesman for Xcel Energy. Between 135,000 and 145,000 customers -- or about 9 percent of Colorado -- lost power at some point during the storm, with a high of 25,000 to 30,000 reporting power loss the morning of March 19.

Roalstadt said work crews planned to restore power to 7,500 homes in the Denver metropolitan area Friday. As of Friday morning, nearly 10,000 people around Colorado were still without electricity.

Roalstadt expected power to be completely restored to all customers over the weekend.

Despite the damage caused by the storm, Wirshborn said that the tremendous snow accumulation may in some ways prove beneficial for the state.

"After seven years of drought we need at least one year of decent moisture to get things back to normal," he said. "It's basically going to take a lot of storms like this."

According to the NWS, 2002 was the driest year on record, since measurements began in 1872.

Wirshborn said the accumulation brings the snowpack back to its normal level, but it alone won't end the drought.

"It's kind of like a dent in it," he said.

Snow melt will not necessarily translate into instant groundwater, however. Much of the melting snow can be expected to cause stream and street flooding, he said.

"Now we're in the second phase of this thing," Wirshborn said. "It's starting to melt. Luckily it's not going to all melt at one time."

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