Tens of thousands of Kansas utility customers were without power Saturday as an early spring blizzard buried parts of the state in snow and ice.

Tens of thousands of Kansas utility customers were without power Saturday as an early spring blizzard buried parts of the state in snow and ice.


Westar Energy said almost 19,000 customers had no power, up from 17,000 earlier that morning. In addition, the Kansas Adjutant General's Department said six rural electric cooperatives were reporting extensive power outages and were seeking help from other utilities.


Most of the utility problems were in south central Kansas, where up to an eighth of an inch of ice was causing tree branches to snap and knocking down power lines.


Much of the rest of the state was dealing with heavy snow and a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain.


The National Weather Service said the heaviest snow had fallen in parts of southwest Kansas, including 28 inches in the Pratt area with six-foot snow drifts.


"There's a good swath of our area that's covered with at least a foot of snow," said Matt Girard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Dodge City.


Heavy winds accompanying the snow diminished visibility in many communities to almost zero and forced authorities to close several local and state highways. Still, the storm was blamed for numerous accidents.


So far, the adjutant general's office reported only one death caused by the storm, a driver who died in a traffic accident in Marion County Friday afternoon.


Areas in central, eastern and southeastern Kansas were reporting a foot and a half or less of snow but were more concerned about the freezing rain making driving even more challenging.


The Kansas Department of Transportation said several highways were closed in southwest Kansas due to poor visibility and blowing snow, including long stretches of such major routes as U.S. 54, 56, 83, 160, 183, 283 and 400. Part of U.S. 83 south out of Garden City was reopened, as was U.S. 50 west of Dodge City.


Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the adjutant general and director of the Kansas Department of Emergency Management, warned motorists to avoid travel in hard-hit areas.


Bunting's office said a number of Kansas National Guard members and Kansas Highway Patrol were helping local authorities with search and rescue operations. The Highway Patrol also sent out a plan Saturday to fly over areas of southwest and south-central Kansas to look for stranded drivers.


The National Guard also opened armories in Dodge City, Great Bend, Hutchinson, Kingman, Larned, Pratt and West Wichita Saturday as warming stations.


Earlier Saturday, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a declaration of disaster emergency for 62 counties, allowing state resources to help local officials.


Meteorologists said the snow and ice was expected to taper off the remainder of the day and clear out by Saturday night.


But they said residents in the worst-hit areas won't get much help from the weather much before Monday as temperatures in the southwest and south-central regions are expected to remain in the mid to low 30s for the rest of Saturday and much of Sunday.


Even if the temperatures get above freezing, they said, the deep snow is keeping the air around it frosty.


"I think it will start melting tomorrow (Sunday) but it won't make much of a dent in it when you have 18 inches," said Jerilyn Billings, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita.