Two dead, many drivers trapped as western U.S. storms chill New Year's Eve

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 31, 2014 1:25 PM

By Eric M. Johnson and Mark Guarino

(Reuters) - Two people died on a wind-beaten California island and crews rescued more than 100 drivers trapped in snow-caked mountains farther inland as winter storms chilled the western half of the United States on New Year's Eve, officials said on Wednesday.

Dangerous conditions stretched across the Southern High Plain states and desert Southwest, forcing officials in the Texas capital of Austin to cancel New Year's Eve celebrations and others to brace for freezing temperatures, sleet and snow.

In California, a harbor patrolman tending to boats that had become unmoored on wind-battered Catalina Island was killed when he was swept overboard and pinned between rocks and a boat, Los Angeles County officials said, citing preliminary information. The circumstances of a second death were not available.

Meanwhile, a winter storm dumped snow in the San Bernardino Mountains outside Los Angeles. County firefighters working overnight rescued 136 motorists who became stranded on icy, switchback roads on State Highway 138 near Crestline, San Bernardino County fire officials said.

Near Mount Baldy, roughly 50 people were stranded in similar conditions, it said.

Damaging winds with gusts of more than 60 mph will continue across parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties into the afternoon on Wednesday, with toppled trees and powerlines likely, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

In Texas, officials in Austin canceled a New Year's Eve festival in Butler Park due to weather expected to include a mix of high winds and freezing rain.

Icy roads in west Texas led to nearly 130 accidents in the city of Midland over the past 24 hours. In nearby Odessa, there were nearly 200 accidents due to the icy roads.

Revelers in many areas were expected to brave bitter cold as they usher in 2015, including in San Antonio, where up to 60,000 people were expected for the state's biggest New Year's Eve bash.

Cold high pressure over the Southern Plains will intensify as it moves eastward to the Central Gulf Coast by Thursday night, producing light snow and rain, forecasters said. Farther west, snow was projected for parts of the Southwest that will move into the Central Rockies by Thursday morning.

A winter storm dumped snow across northern Arizona. In Colorado, Denver has been hit with 6 inches of snow since Monday.

Temperatures plunged to a record minus-19 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday at Denver International Airport, breaking the minus 11-degree mark set in 1898.

Las Vegas, where some 340,000 visitors were expected for New Year's celebrations, could get between a half-inch and inch of snow, forecasters said.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Mark Guarino in Chicago; Editing by Bill Trott and Will Dunham)