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Winds, winter storms snarl some holiday travel

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - High winds and snow slowed travelers in Colorado and Nebraska ahead of the new year, as many Americans hit the roads over the holiday weekend, officials said on Saturday.

The National Weather Service has issued a high wind warning for eastern Colorado, parts of Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas. The warning was in effect until sundown on Saturday when the winds were expected to die down.

The weather service also issued a winter storm warning for a band stretching from northwest Iowa, across a swath of Minnesota that includes the Twin Cities and through west central Wisconsin into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

In Minnesota, afternoon rain was expected to turn to snow, with totals of 1 to 4 inches forecast in most areas accompanied by winds of 30- to 35-miles per hour on Saturday evening with gusts of 50 mph possible, the weather service said.

"The combination of accumulating snow, strong winds and falling temperatures will make travel difficult on area roadways, particularly during the late evening into the overnight hours," the Twin Cities weather service office said.

In Iowa, where Republicans gather on Tuesday for caucuses marking the first big step in the U.S. presidential race, strong winds of 30 to 40 mph were expected Saturday night and through New Year's Day.

On the high plains of Colorado, Interstate 76 from east of Denver to the Nebraska state line was closed to all high-profile vehicles, including trailers and sports utility vehicles, the state Department of Transportation said.

There was nearly zero visibility on Interstate 80 in southern Nebraska due to wind and blowing snow, the Nebraska State Patrol said.

Blowing and drifting snow in the mountains and swirling dust on the eastern plains of Colorado will make traveling difficult for motorists, said Jim Kalina, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, Colorado.

The buffeting winds have also hurt the state's lucrative ski industry over the busy holiday weekend. All lifts at the Breckenridge Ski Resort west of Denver were closed on Saturday morning.

"Until high winds abate, most of the mountain remains on a delayed opening," the resort said on its website.

In the town of Breckenridge, about 5,000 customers were without power due to gusts that brought down power lines, Xcel Energy spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said.

At the Winter Park ski resort west of Denver, lifts were operating on the lower part of the mountain, but not at elevations of 10,000 feet and above, said Mistalynn Lee, spokeswoman for the resort.

"Safety is always first, but we have high hopes the winds will die down and we can open all the lifts," Lee said.

The Colorado Department of Transportation closed the 11,000-foot Loveland Pass traversed by U.S. Route 6 on Saturday due to blowing and drifting snow, the agency's website said.

(Additional reporting by David Hendee and David Bailey; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Johnston)

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