Socorro County is thawing out after a weather system blew through the state over the weekend, dumping nearly a foot of snow across the county on Monday.
Schools, government offices and some businesses closed and Interstate 25 was shut down, stranding travelers — most of whom found hotel rooms, though the city of Socorro put up close to three dozen at its youth center Monday night.
Temperatures remained below freezing all day Tuesday, and Wednesday is expected to be bitterly cold as well, but the storm is over, said Emergency Services Administrator Fred Hollis.
“By Thursday, it should warm up real good.”
Numerous accidents led to the closure of I-25 in both directions about noon on Monday. The interstate re-opened a few hours later to allow northbound travelers to carry on, but was shut down again when the pavement began to ice up again around sunset.
State Police handled 30 crashes in District 11 from Bernardo south to Truth or Consequences, between early Monday morning and the final highway closing. NMSP Public Information Officer Lt. Robert McDonald said there were some injuries but most of the incidents involved vehicles just sliding off the roadway.
It was enough to keep local towing companies working at break-neck pace.
“That’s one of the reasons for the earlier closing,” McDonald said. “There were so many jack-knifed trucks we had to close it long enough for the wreckers to get in there and get them out. The other reason, of course, was public safety.”
There was a report of one accident, with a fatality, handled by the Socorro County Sheriff’s Department. Details of the accident were not available at El Defensor Chieftain press time Tuesday.
The Socorro Police Department had all available personnel responding to calls, and helping to keep travelers off the highway.
“There were a lot of unhappy people, I can tell you that, but all in all it turned out all right,” said Police Chief George Van Winkle.
Police dispatchers fielded more than 300 calls by 5 p.m. Monday, but most were from people who wanted information.
“Everybody wanted to know how long the highway would be closed, and what we were going to do. All we could tell them was, it could be a couple of hours, or it could be all night — that was the only answer we could give them,” Van Winkle said.
There were reports of many minor accidents, but no major ones that Van Winkle was aware of within city limits.
Some drivers were determined to get home at any cost.
“We were having some trouble with people taking Park Street to get to Highway 1, so they could go through Luis Lopez and get over to Highway 380, where I understand there were some accidents,” he said. “We had to block that off.”
There were also reports of those who’d been turned back at the highway on-ramps who were driving around on the back roads, looking for a frontage road or other way out of town.
One incident which could have turned out badly ended up well. A city crew had to rush to the municipal airport Monday afternoon to clear off the runway for a plane that was trying to land.
“They needed to land the med-evac plane, because it was too cold to fly the helicopter, and there was a patient who needed to be airlifted out,” said Jay Santillanes, city utilities director. “We were able to use a grader. It didn’t take long.”
City of Socorro utilities reported no major problems, said Water Superintendent Lloyd Martinez.
“But there’s usually no problem until it thaws, and then we find out,” Martinez cautioned.
Mable Gonzales, the city finance director, said the city’s biggest concern was gas delivery, but said the pressure had held up and been good.
“We think we can now withstand below zero temperatures,” Gonzales said. “According to Abie (Baca), we’re going to be OK this year.”
Baca is the supervisor of the gas department.
Magdalena also survived the storm pretty well.
“It’s pretty much just snow and icy roads, but we didn’t have any major accidents,” said Village Marshal Larry Cearley.
Cearley said one driver did slide off the road and crash through a fence near Mile Marker 116 on U.S. 60, but it didn’t take long to get her back on the road again.
“Other than that, nothing,” Cearley said. “Nothing on the road to Alamo, nothing on Highway 60 to the west. We worked the highway pretty hard and the State Highway Department worked the road really good.”
Socorro, Magdalena and Alamo schools were closed Monday. Socorro schools remained closed, but Magdalena and Alamo schools were back in session Tuesday, although they were on a two-hour delay.
New Mexico Tech closed as well, and reopened Tuesday at noon. Tech’s Public Information Officer, Thom Guengerich, said Tuesday afternoon that he had received no reports of weather related damage to buildings or injuries to people.
City and county offices were also closed Monday, but reopened Tuesday, with the county on a two-hour delay. Postal delivery of local mail, however, was uninterrupted throughout the storm, except where letter carriers were prevented from getting onto the highway. Delivery of mail from outside Socorro, that didn’t make it into the Socorro post office for sorting because of the highway closure, will be caught up by the end of the day Wednesday, said Postmaster Karla Murphy.