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U.S.: 12 feet of snow, wind stronger than Category 5 hurricane hits California

Christian Fernsby |
Hundreds of miles of California highways remained shut down Sunday as a powerful blizzard pounded parts of the state and Mountain West.

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Snow totals could reach 12 feet amid howling winds with gusts that hit 190 mph, well above the 157 mph threshold for a Category 5 hurricane.

National Weather Service meteorologist William Churchill warned of “life-threatening concern” for residents near Lake Tahoe, calling the storm, now in its third day, an "extreme blizzard." Areas of Nevada, Utah and Colorado were also affected.

"Moderate to heavy snow has persisted overnight across the northern Sierra Nevada," the National Weather Service in Sacramento said in a social media post Sunday. "Wind gusts re continuing to result in blizzard conditions."

More than 100 miles of I-80 remained closed Sunday from the Nevada border to Colfax, California, and there was "no estimated time of reopening the freeway," the California Highway Patrol warned.

Hundreds of travelers were trapped in their vehicles for hours, and more than 300 vehicles were stranded.

On Sunday morning, about 7,000 homes and businesses in California still had not regained power after the storm knocked it out.

The snow was expected to continue through Sunday. A smaller system could add 1-2 feet at higher elevations Monday and Tuesday, Alan Reppert, an AccuWeather senior meteorologist, told USA TODAY.

"There are some areas in the highest elevations that could still see 10-12 feet," Reppert said.

"These storms happen once every few years, but it is nothing that is entirely out of the normal for the area or will break any records."

"High avalanche danger is expected in the backcountry" through Sunday, the weather service warned. Ski resorts live for major snowstorms, but there are limits. Many resorts were forced to shut down Friday, although some were hoping to reopen as soon as Sunday. A wind gust of 190 mph was recorded near the Palisades Tahoe resort, Reppert told USA TODAY.

"We are going to do our very best to get chairlifts spinning" on Sunday, Palisades Tahoe said on its website.

"Our teams have been playing catchup the past two days, but there is still a lot of work to do. We will be digging out for the foreseeable future."

Thirty miles north of Palisades, the Sugar Bowl resort also planned to reopen Sunday but warned of "significant" delays while resort workers dig out and conduct avalanche mitigation.

"It's deep, so deep we have not been able to make it to the snow stakes yet," a statement on the resort website said.

"Your understanding and patience will be rewarded with some terrific skiing."

As the main energy associated with the latest winter storm that impacted the western U.S. moves off into the northern Plains, the intensity of the snow and high winds along the Sierra Nevada as well as across the Intermountain West will gradually wane through Monday.[break]

However, reinforcing upper-level energies arriving from the Pacific with keep the unstable cold air mass in place across a large section of the western U.S., with frequent rounds of mountain snows continuing and reaching as far east as the central Rockies through the next couple of days.

From later on Monday into Tuesday, another influx of moisture from the next Pacific frontal system is expected to bring a renewed round of enhanced rainfall from northwestern California to southwestern Oregon where some locally heavy rainfall may occur.

Some embedded thunderstorms could also reach farther north along the coast of the Pacific Northwest and northern California on Monday as added instability associated with a surface trough edges toward the coast.

The moisture will then penetrate inland, reaching into the northern Rockies as a round of moderate to locally heavy mountain snows on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, an intensifying low pressure system is bringing a round of accumulating snowfall near the Canadian border of North Dakota with a wintry mix farther east across northern Minnesota on Sunday.

The precipitation will taper off later tonight as the storm moves farther away into southern Canada.

To the south and east, the recent dry spell will initially limit rainfall amounts along a wavy front trailing southwest toward a developing low pressure system over the central High Plains.

However, persistent southerly flow from the Gulf of Mexico will eventually direct moisture northward to expand an area of rain from the Midwest to the Great Lakes later on Monday into Tuesday.

Meanwhile, an upper-level disturbance will begin to interact with the returning Gulf moisture to bring an emerging threat of heavy rain into the central Gulf Coast states on Tuesday and especially by Tuesday evening.

Along the East Coast, following a recent round of widespread enhanced rainfall, another coastal low pressure system is forecast to form along the stalled front and track up the Mid-Atlantic coast Monday into Tuesday.

This relatively compact system is forecast to deliver another round of enhanced rainfall up the Mid-Atlantic states Monday and Tuesday, reaching into New England by Tuesday afternoon.

Across Florida, thunderstorm chances are forecast to decrease as the lingering front weakens with time but they will increase again later on Tuesday as the aforementioned upper-level disturbance begins to approach from the west.

Widespread much above average, spring-like high temperatures will persist across the central/eastern U.S. into Monday.

The greatest anomalies of 25-35 degrees over the lower/mid-Missouri Valley northeastward into the upper Great Lakes on Sunday will shift into the Ohio Valley, lower Great Lakes, and interior Northeast on Monday.

Numerous daily record-tying/breaking highs are possible as temperatures reach into the 70s for most locations.

Across the central and southern Plains, persistently dry conditions accompanied by lee troughing and gusty winds will continue the threat of wildfires in the nearby High Plains at least through tonight into early Monday.

Along the East Coast, highs are forecast to range between the 40s and 50s for New England, 50s and 60s for the Mid-Atlantic, and 70s to low 80s for the Southeast/Florida.

In the West, highs will remain cooler and below average, ranging from the 30s and 40s in the Pacific Northwest and much of the Interior West, 50s in northern/central California, 60s in southern California, and 60s and 70s into the Desert Southwest.

The coldest spot in the country will be in the northern Rockies/adjacent High Plains, where highs will be in the teens and 20s following a couple cold front passages.

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