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Blizzard strands motorists in Southwest, Plains

By Steve Olafson

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A blizzard shut down highways in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas on Monday, stranding motorists and causing dozens of wrecks including a prison van in which two people died, authorities said.

The storm moved into southwest Kansas on Monday evening, closing some highways and many schools for Tuesday.

"We have people in the ditch everywhere," said Nora Laird, a dispatcher for the sheriff's office in Seward County.

The blizzard was in full force on Monday night, said Kishor Gandhi, manager of the Single Tree Inn at Ulysses, Kansas.

"You can't see the road anymore," he said.

In Oklahomas, snow drifts up to 4 feet high made highways impassable, said Cliff White, emergency management coordinator for Cimarron County, Oklahoma.

In eastern Colorado, a prisoner and a corrections officer were killed when the driver of a van transporting nine prisoners lost control on Interstate 70, authorities said.

Colorado State Patrol Trooper Nate Reid said the van was pulling a trailer when the driver lost control on the icy roadway near Limon, Colorado. The van flipped and rolled onto the median, killing the inmate and a prison guard. The van is owned by Corrections Corporation of America, and was transporting prisoners from Limon to Burlington, Colorado.

The remaining occupants of the vehicle were transported to a local hospital with "moderate to serious injuries," Reid said.

A pileup of 18-wheel trucks on U.S. 287 in southeastern Colorado blocked the highway, causing traffic to back up for miles until the highway was closed in Boise City, Oklahoma, about 18 miles from the Colorado line, White said.

Shelters were opened for stranded motorists, but most people simply stayed in their vehicles or bided their time in convenience stores while truck drivers stayed in their rigs on the roadside, he said.

"As long as we can keep the power on, we'll be OK," White said.

Snow in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, whipped by wind gusts up to 45 mph, was expected to continue falling the rest of the night and reduce visibility to about a quarter-mile, the National Weather Service said.

"It's very bad," said Theresa Ramirez, a dispatcher for the Cimarron County Sheriff's Department in Oklahoma. "There's no place for people to stay between Boise City and Springfield, Colorado. I don't know what they're going to do."

In northern and central New Mexico, many schools closed, as did Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Officials closed about 175 miles of Interstate 25 between Santa Fe and Raton, N.M., near the Colorado border, because of whiteouts from blizzard conditions.

A similarly-sized stretch of Interstate 40 east of Albuquerque to the Texas border was also closed.

Some neighborhoods near Grants, New Mexico - about 80 miles west of Albuquerque - had been without power for eight hours, Cibola County Emergency Manager Tony Boyd said on Monday afternoon. Accumulations of as much as 18 inches had caused some carports and roofs to collapse, Boyd said.

In Texas, where high winds and heavy snow are expected in the Panhandle, Governor Rick Perry has activated Texas Military Forces vehicles to provide help on the roads.

About a foot of snow should accumulate by Tuesday morning in the northwest reaches of the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, said Jose Garcia, chief meteorologist of the National Weather Service field office in Amarillo, Texas.

(Additional reporting by Dennis Carroll, Keith Coffman and Kevin Murphy. Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan)