DENVER – National Guard troops were using specialized vehicles to rescue stranded drivers in Colorado as a powerful "bomb cyclone" was expected to continue its march Thursday, unleashing heavy rain and snow on the Midwest plains.
The storm, which blasted a mix of snow, rain and wind across the central United States on Wednesday, was blamed for a crash that killed a Colorado State Patrol trooper.
More than 1,300 flights had been canceled at Denver International Airport, where a wind gust of 80 mph was reported Wednesday morning. All runways at the airport were closed around early afternoon and remained closed into Wednesday evening.
About 3,000 flights were canceled across the nation, according to flightaware.com.
Late Wednesday, about 111,000 Denver-area residents were without power, down from 246,000 in the afternoon. Interstates were shut down, most schools were closed and many businesses declared a snow day. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency in the evening, activating the state national guard for search and rescue missions.
Earlier in the day, Cpl. Daniel Groves was killed on Interstate 76 after a driver lost control of his vehicle in the storm and hit him. Groves had been helping another driver who slid off the highway, the state patrol said.
In addition to road closures in Colorado and Wyoming, the Nebraska State Patrol closed Interstate 80 from the Wyoming border east to North Platte, as well as all state highways in the Nebraska Panhandle. Officials ordered flooding evacuations in areas including Cedar Rapids and Belgrade, The Omaha World-Herald reported, as well as low-lying parts of Randolph and Pierce.
“This is a very epic cyclone,” said Greg Carbin, chief of forecast operations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center. “We’re looking at something that will go down in the history books.”
It could develop into the worst storm of its type in 35 or 40 years, he said.
The winter storm will slowly pull away from Colorado overnight, the National Weather Service said, and has dropped between 4 and 10 inches across most of the state's northeast plains.
After a rainy early morning in Denver, conditions deteriorated rapidly, and by 11 a.m., most roads were snow-covered and flakes were whipping in the wind.
By noon, the fierce storm was rattling signs and rocking cars. Roads become treacherous, and two-wheel-drive sedans struggled to climb up anything resembling a hill, their tires spinning fruitlessly.
Easily the best satellite imagery of this cold season. Spectacular. pic.twitter.com/dgogvMEcKq— Eric Fisher (@ericfisher) March 13, 2019
“They predicted a blizzard, and that’s what we’re having,” said server Rindi Gray, 48, as she took a break from shoveling the sidewalk outside My Brother’s Bar, which boasts some of Denver’s best cheeseburgers but expected to close early because of the storm.
Across the city, workers struggled in vain to keep sidewalks and walkways clear. Wrapped in a plastic poncho flapping loudly in the wind, Matt Krueger, 36, pushed snow off a sidewalk while more blew in right behind him.
“They told us to clear a path, but it’s just gonna get snowed over again,” he sighed.
Authorities asked drivers to stay off the roads.
Farther south, about 55,000 customers were without power in Texas Wednesday night, down from nearly 75,000 customers earlier in the day.
"While not a tropical system, winds will rival what's seen in a Category 1 hurricane," weathermodels.com meteorologist Ryan Maue said.
Bomb cyclones – sometimes called winter hurricanes – are storms that strengthen unusually fast.
The worst weather hit the Plains, from Texas up to the Dakotas.
"We expect a major blizzard to unfold with winds likely to approach hurricane force, heavy snow and massive drifts," according to AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.
Blizzard warnings persisted in parts of Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota late Wednesday. The National Weather Service warned of "impossible travel conditions."
"You risk becoming stranded if you attempt to travel through these conditions," it said.
Wild, destructive winds gusting as high as 100 mph hit Texas, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado. Blowing dust will reduce visibility to less than a mile at times. The Weather Service office in Midland/Odessa, Texas, said Wednesday could be "the windiest day in years."
"High winds may end up stretching over 1 million square miles of the central states with this storm," AccuWeather's Sosnowski said.
In the Upper Midwest and around the Great Lakes, as much as 3 inches of drenching rain on top of mounds of already-fallen snow and sodden soil could lead to flooding.
"The greatest risk of flooding will tend to be in urban and poor drainage areas where piles of snow are blocking storm drains," according to AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski.
Many rivers in the Upper Midwest were likely to reach flood stage over the next several days, the Weather Service said.
After two tornadoes were reported in New Mexico and Texas on Tuesday, more severe weather was forecast for Wednesday in the South. Portions of Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee are at greatest risk for tornadoes and large hail, the Storm Prediction Center said.
The Weather Channel named the winter storm Ulmer. No other private weather firm, nor the National Weather Service, uses that name.
While the central USA endures the storm, both coasts will see mostly tranquil weather this week.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Rice reported from McLean, Virginia. Kristin Lam, USA TODAY. Lam reported from Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Epic' bomb cyclone hits central US with heavy snow, winds; Colorado trooper killed