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West digs out from blizzard as local economies feel chill

Melinda Leach discovered the Christmas Eve blizzard early Friday morning when she opened the door of her mountain cabin to let her Saint Bernard, Hannah, out.

''I couldn't believe it. The snow was up almost to the middle of the door,'' Miss Leach says. When she went to bed early the night before in her home in Wondervu, a small community in the mountains directly west of Denver, she had only seen a few snow flakes. By the next morning more than 40 inches of snow had fallen.

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As a result of the once-in-a-century blizzard that paralyzed the Denver area, Miss Leach and her dog were snowed in for nearly three days.

''It took me 30 minutes to walk the few hundred yards to the highway, an hour to uncover my car, and six hours of shoveling to clear the driveway. It was quite an adventure,'' says the young woman, who had moved in only a few weeks before.

By Monday, however, the roads were clear enough so that she could commute to work in nearby Boulder. But Denver, which received only 26 inches, was still partially paralyzed this the week by the estimated 1.6 million tons of snow that pummeled the city last Friday.

Denver's mayor pegs the bill for snow removal on the city's 1,650 miles of paved streets at $1 million. City merchants report a loss of 70 percent of their business on Christmas Eve, typically the fifth or sixth highest retail sales day of the year.

And because the snow fell on the runways of Denver's busy Stapleton International Airport rather than the ski runs of the state's many winter resorts, the ski industry may have lost as much as $9 million because of a 30 percent reduction in business. Airlines carrying vacation skiers and other travelers report their losses could top $10 million.

On the plus side, the city's hotels report that they have been deluged with stranded travelers, while operating short-staffed. A number of the area's restaurants have been extra busy as well. Snow shovels and plows, snow tires and chains were selling briskly.

The storm moved on through the Midwest, bringing cold temperatures, high winds, and up to two feet of snow, and leaving nearly 35,000 people without power in Nebraska, Iowa, and Michigan. At least 42 people were reported to have died as the storm moved across the Midwest.

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In contrast, record high temperatures continued in dozens of cities in the East.

Louisiana residents Wednesday were also experiencing a once-in-a-century storm. Gov. Dave Treen declared a state of emergency in 15 parishes because of flooding, as rains of up to 20 inches in 24 hours drenched some areas. Although skies cleared Tuesday, officials said they expected more flooding in northern and central Louisiana during the next few days because of waterways brimming with runoff from the rain.

In Denver, the slowness with which the streets were being cleared is sparking steadily growing criticism and has become the focus of city politicking. But the general response to nature's gift of an extra-white Christmas appeared to be one of cheerful stoicism and considerable cooperation.

Steve Allen, a junkyard employee in a Denver suburb used the company's forklift truck to rescue stranded motorists for several hours last Friday after using a banged up Chevrolet El Camino as a ram to batter a path through a large snow drift. The city's missions fed and sheltered numbers of the homeless well in excess of their normal capacities. Neighbors on certain streets got together to dig out the walks and cars of the elderly and infirm. Some hotels offered their rooms at ''distressed traveler'' rates of 30 to 50 percent below normal.

As Denver Post editorial writer Lee Olson observed, ''A first-class winter storm in the American West soon becomes a battlefield. It can devastate human enterprises as effectively as any invading army. One learns quickly not to make permanent plans against King Winter. . . . But Westerners have faced such onslaughts for generations.''

While staying close to home, bumping over snow-rutted roads to work, cross-country skiing through snow-covered parks and sidewalks, discussion here inevitably turned to blizzards past.

The last snow storm of similar magnitude to hit Denver was in December 1913. More than 40 inches of snow accumulated over five days. The snow that was removed was heaped into a large, white mountain that didn't melt away until the following summer.

The headlines in 1913 reflected a considerably different tenor: ''Denver in Mantle of Shimmering White Stops Activity and Everybody Jollifies'' read the Denver Post, and, ''All Denver is walking amid ghostly silence of streets that are buried.''

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