Powerful storm system slams West; 5 killed

LAS VEGAS — A powerful storm system marched toward New Mexico on Saturday with predictions of widespread snow, freezing temperatures and gusty winds after leaving parts of the Western U.S. soaked.

The fierce weather has led to at least five deaths, with flooding and water rescues reported in California, stranded drivers in Nevada and hundreds of crashes among desert dwellers in Arizona and New Mexico.

Snowplows worked overnight and early Saturday to clear roads across northern Arizona and New Mexico as transportation officials warned travelers to reconsider their plans.

Jennifer Palucki, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, called the approaching weather a “big kahuna” of a storm. Conditions were expected to quickly deteriorate Saturday night, she said.

“All that arctic air across New Mexico laid the groundwork. Then we have this bigger upper-level storm system over southern California and ahead of that is this nice stream of moisture coming up over New Mexico,” she said. “That makes for a good recipe for snow.”

The system was expected to head east and reach the Atlantic coast by the middle of next week, resulting in wind, rain, ice and snow for the busy holiday travel period, federal forecasters said.

In California, the storms were linked to three deaths. In Oakland, one person was found dead near downed power lines and another crashed his vehicle into a tree while apparently trying to avoid debris in the road, news reports and officials said. Also, a 52-year-old woman died in Yuba County, north of Sacramento, when a tree fell on the parked car in which she was sitting.

In Southern California, a homeless man had to be rescued from a tree by helicopter and four others were plucked from an island after becoming trapped in the swollen Santa Ana River in San Bernardino County.

In Nevada, snow in higher elevations in rural, eastern Lincoln County stranded 50 to 60 cars Friday, dispatcher Shannon Miller said. No injuries were reported, but U.S. 93 was closed south of Ely. Sheriff’s dispatch said early Saturday that the roadway had been reopened, but the office did not have any information on the stranded cars.

In eastern New Mexico, where freezing rain left highways slick, state police say a 4-year-old girl was killed when her family’s car slid across U.S. 70 and overturned Friday.

In Arizona, firefighters in Tucson recovered the body of a man who was swept away Friday by high water in the Santa Cruz River. Meanwhile, authorities across the state responded to hundreds of vehicle crashes as the storm dropped rain on typically dry roads.

Phoenix received 1.6 inches of rain, making Friday the second wettest November day on record for the city. The rain continued Saturday in Tucson as 8,400 cyclists braved the weather to participate in the annual El Tour de Tucson.

The wet conditions also prompted the Arizona Interscholastic Association to push back high school football playoff games set for Friday and Saturday. Officials rescheduled the games to Monday “due to the weather conditions, field conditions and safety of the players and fans attending the games.”

Forecasters said parts of both California and Arizona could expect severe weather with winter storm warnings through midday Saturday in the mountains and the Antelope Valley foothills northeast of Los Angeles. However, there’s only a small chance of rainstorms like those that prompted flooding in California on Thursday.

At least one business in thirsty southern Nevada was rejoicing over the storm system. Officials at the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort north of Sin City measured 11 1/2 inches of snow at midday Friday, with a week to spare until opening day.

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