Snowbound in Tucumcari

by Chelle Delaney: Quay County Sun

It’s back to business as usual for most residents, hoteliers and city officials.

But, for three days, it seemed all traffic flowed into Tucumcari.

In fact, an estimated 7,500 semi-trucks and passenger vehicles converged in Tucumcari between Friday and Sunday when access to I-40 was closed due of hazardous road conditions, according to a press release from the Tucumcari Police Department.

“We had both lanes of westbound I-40 bumper-to-bumper with vehicles from mile marker 329 to mile marker 335. That’s six miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic just sitting and waiting for the interstate to reopen,” said Tucumcari Police Chief Larry Ham.

“We had vehicles in the school parking lots; they were lined up from Fourth Street to the interstate, and we had three shelters opened,” said Mike Cherry, the city’s emergency manager and Tucumcari Fire Department Chief.

The city’s 32 motels and about 1,200 rooms were at full occupancy and three shelters were put into operation to accommodate the overflow of about 500 people, city officials said.

The Tucumcari/Quay County Chamber of Commerce had about 40 people visit between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Friday looking for rooms and information about road conditions, said Chamber executive director Dianne Paris.

“We gave them lists of hotels. By the afternoon, I started calling motels. Everyone I called was full. We also called Logan, and we were able to reserve some rooms for some people from here in Logan,” Paris said.

Econo Lodge hotel manager Raj Patel said there were no vacancies at his hotel from Wednesday to Monday.
The first wave of stranded motorists were sent to the city’s Recreational Center, the second to Tucumcari High School’s Rhodes Field House and third to the First Baptist Church.

Tucumcari has five RV parks and many of those were observed to be more than half full.

Some motorists seeking an alternative route found themselves spending the night along side of dirt roads, said Larry Moore, Quay County road supertintendent.

These incidents occurred on the caprock, where the winds across expansive plains whipped the snow into drifts.
“We got the blades out to move the snow, so that the wreckers could get to them,” Moore said.

Drifts on the east and west directions built up to about 5 feet and made conditions impassable, Moore said.

“Some of the farmers were able to get through their fields once or twice, but couldn’t’ use their driveways,” Moore said.
Tucumcari received 6 1/2 inches of snow on Friday and Saturday and another 1/2 inch Sunday morning, according to record keepers.

The blustery snow on Friday and Saturday contributed to “white out” and icy conditions, leading to the closure of west and east bound lanes of the interstate and several highways, such as State Road 209.

Officials said the trouble on the interstate was in the vicinity of Clines Corners, where several accidents occurred.
There were 4 inches still on the ground on Tuesday morning, according to New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center records in Tucumcari.

When I-40 was reopened on Sunday, it was a smooth process getting thousands of cars back on the road, city officials said.

“It amazed me. I thought it was going to take five hours. They were let back onto the interstate at 4 p.m. on Sunday. A little after 6 p.m., everybody cleared out, and without any complaints,” said Tucumcari City Manager Richard Primrose.

City road workers put in full days on Saturday and Sunday to clean up the snow and salt down the roads.
“We are going to try and do an emergency resolution to get help from the state,” said Primrose, who added that the total cost to the city had not yet been added up.

San Jon, Logan
also jammed

“We opened up the shelter in the San Jon Community Center. Eighty people spent the night,” said Chief Ben Gates of the San Jon Police Department.
“They stayed Sunday night and left Monday morning. They were there all day on Sunday. They got there at about 9 a.m. because everything was closed from here,” said San Jon Village Administrator Bobbye Rose.
“We had some Red Cross blankets and some sleeping bags,” Rose said. “But the majority of the people were elderly couples and we found air mattresses or cots for the rest. I bet we had 30 air mattresses or cots. What we want to note all the food came from San Jon community. They had full meals. Those people were very grateful. Most said never treated so graciously.”

In Logan, another 50 stranded motorists were housed from Friday to Sunday at the Logan Community Center, said Logan Police Officer Wade Strand. They were assisted by the Logan Fire Department, New Mexico State Parks, Village of Logan employees and area churches.

“We had no real problems with the people who were stranded. We did have an increase of officers on the street. We usually run 10 hours a day, but we were pulling anywhere from 14 to 16 hours a day,” Strand said.

There were also 300 semi-trucks that were parked along U.S. 54 from one end of town to the other, Strand said.

Truckers know how
to get goods delivered

“We had several of the
semi-truck-drivers call in
for delivery who were stranded all over town. We came close to running out of food on Friday but our grocery truck made it in on Saturday,” said manager Tracy Hendren of the Pizza Hut.
“I had to get a police escort one time to the old truck stop on West Route 66
to deliver a pizza to a semi-driver,” said Pizza Hut delivery driver Robert Pruitt.
“There were a lot of people stranded in our parking lot that came into the store to keep warm,” Hendren said.

Restaurants get down
to the basics

The manager of the Denny’s Restaurant on East Route 66 said during the first two days of the storm they had a lot of people who came in and had nowhere to stay.
“We opened our banquet room and let them sit in there and drink coffee while they tried to find a hotel room,” Jenny Dimas said. “On Friday we only had one cook on duty and a packed restaurant and he was behind on orders. We asked the people coming in to bear with us as we took their orders. By Saturday, we had run out of all food items except for eggs, pancakes and sausage which we served all day.”
Cook John Ysco said, “It was a couple of rough days. There was a constant inflow of customers but our staff held up. The people were very patient despite the circumstances.”

Convenience stores tapped of snacks, fuel

“The store is half empty and we are waiting on our grocery trucks and vendors to come in and restock us after this weekend,” said Amanda Sanchez, store manager of the Circle K on Rock Island. “We sold out of gasoline, bread, pastries, chips and pre-made sandwiches.”
At Allsup’s on South First Street, manager Amber Simpson, said, “We had motorists stranded in our parking lot who were waiting for I-40 to reopen. We ran low on bottled water, chips, bread and sandwich meats but our pre-made food case remained well stocked.”

Truckers take over
parking lots
Parking lots at ALCO, K-Mart, Lowe’s and other lots became home to hundreds of semi-trucks as they waited for I-40 to open.
“We were busy and had people stranded in our parking lot,” said Jeanne Benavidez, ALCO’s supervising group manager. “We had no problems with them and they helped us bring in carts at times and they were thankful and courteous for us letting them park there.

“We sold out of snow shovels and ran low on food items but we did not sell out. We saw an increase in winter apparel sales and people were looking for entertainment items to help keep themselves busy during the long wait,” she said.
“They had nowhere else to go,” said Greg Baldwin, area supervisor of Lowe’s grocery store. “We were glad we had a place for them. They were no problem.”

Meanwhile in the store, teamwork and a few extras hours for clerks kept the operation running smoothly, Baldwin said.
“We did extremely well. The Frito-Lay truck could not get through to here from Denver.”

Items that moved fastest off the shelves were snack foods, bread and sandwich meat, he said. “People were looking for the easy to fix items to take to their motel rooms.”
Since deliveries could not be made it will take until Monday for the store to to be fully re-stocked, he said.

Run on snow shovels
While the locals hunted out snow shovels to clear their walks and driveways, stranded RVers sought out ladders to get at the snow which was topping their RVs, said James Mahan, manager of Lowe’s Ace Hardware store.
“We sold 15 to 20 ladders so that they could get the snow off of their roofs,” Mahan said.

There’s not a snow shovel left at Lowe’s, and it will probably be several weeks before there is another delivery, Mahan said.

Because of the blizzard which hit Denver several weeks ago, the warehouse supply had been pretty well depleted, he said.

At Burns Hardware Do It Center, salesman Robert Garcia, said, “We have one snow shovel left and two bags of ice melt.”

hospitality shines
“They all did a terrific job,” said Mike Cherry, emergency manager and Tucumcari Fire Department chief, listing volunteers from the Ministry of Hope, Jim and Kath Witcher, and city employees from city rec director, Scott Simpson, to the EMS teams to the road crews.

At First Baptist Church, about 50 volunteers attended to about 80 stranded motorists, said church member, Mark Whittington. “Everybody brought something. There were diapers, baby food, a crib. Anything they needed.” he said.
And at Quail Ridge two vacant rooms were made available to four elderly persons, said A.J. Williams, manager of the assisted living facility.

“I just couldn’t see them sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag,” said Williams, who offered a couple from Minnesota and two women, from Iowa, refuge from the storm.
“We even had a New Year’s Eve party here Sunday which they attended,” she said.

Simpson, director of the rec center, said that some people came and invited the elderly to stay in their homes rather than let them sleep on the floor or on a cot.

to the rescue
Linda Unruh, owner of All-Rite Towing and Pinky’s Towing, said it was a busy New Year’s weekend for her fleet of 18 tow trucks.

“We couldn’t get some of them out, so we had to drive them out and come back and get their vehicles later,” Unruh said.
“I was concerned about he children,” said Unruh. One woman driver with a six-month-old baby was stuck up at Broadview, she said.

The semi-trucks also had their troubles with fuel gelling in the lines, and not being able to move, Unruh said.
“It kept us on our toes,” Unruh said.

— Thomas Garcia contributed to this report