Jim Johnstone had seen news reports that cold weather was headed for Santa Fe. He got up extra early on Friday morning at the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place on Cerrillos Road so he could secure a chair on the back patio, where a heater runs all day in a partially enclosed area covered with thick plastic.
“I was kinda looking out for it,” he said of the snowstorm, which was expected to intensify overnight and leave up to 7 inches in the city by Saturday afternoon.
Around 8 a.m., the first flakes began to fall, so faint at first they looked like flecks of ash. By midmorning, the snow was coming down in heavy, wet clumps, leaving a slick trace along roads and weighing down the already lush green leaves on trees around town.
The National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch, cautioning travelers and warning of the potential impact of freezing temperatures on fruit trees and other growth. Just two days before the month of May, the storm is expected to be the largest on record to hit Northern New Mexico at this time of year.
The last time Santa Fe saw snow this late in the season was May 7, 1969.
“A good chunk of north central, northeastern New Mexico, it is going to be hit pretty hard,” said Clay Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “The impacts will be short lived, but they are going to be pretty significant.”
Temperatures were expected to reach a low of 29 at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport and a “hard freeze” of 24 degrees by Sunday morning. Such temperatures can kill plants and early blooms.
“It’s been so warm people think, ‘Oh, spring is here,’ ” Anderson said, but for early gardeners, “Now they are going to end up with dead tomato plants.”
The storm forced the cancellation of a Friday afternoon performance of a traveling circus that had set up at the rodeo grounds on Rodeo Road. But an evening show would go on, the Carson & Barnes Circus said on its website. Several more performances were scheduled Saturday and Sunday, raising concerns among some residents about whether the company’s elephants and other animals were prepared for unexpected freezing temperatures throughout the weekend.
The storm didn’t keep a handful of the circus’ opponents from protesting the show at the rodeo grounds.
The heaviest snow was expected to begin just after midnight on Saturday morning and collect through the afternoon, with scattered but lighter snow showers into the evening.
Anderson said authorities might have to close Interstate 25 on Saturday from Santa Fe to the Colorado border, as well as U.S. 285 south of Santa Fe and parts of Interstate 40.
On Friday afternoon, nearly 20 moderate to severe road alerts had been issued by the state Department of Transportation on NMRoads.com for Northern New Mexico, warning drivers of limited visibility and slick, icy roads; it advised motorists to drive “with extreme caution, reduce speed and obey all posted traffic signs.”
Transportation crews were out spreading salt on the roads as snow fell intermittently.
Up north, fruit farmers said Friday it was too soon to know how much the cold would hurt this season’s crop.
“The last five years we’ve been getting later and later cold fronts like this that fly through and cause problems,” said Tim Seaman, who has 100 apple, pear, apricot and plum trees across three acres in Abiquiú.
“God laughs at fruit,” he said, “That’s the saying up here.”
In 2011, a late cold front took all the fruit from his trees, the blossoms killed before the apples could mature. The following year, he had more fruit than he knew what to do with.
Larger orchards have 30-foot-high fans that circulate air to keep the cold at bay. But Seaman doesn’t have those kind of tools; it’s just him.
“I am at the mercy of the weather,” he said.
Paul Bryan Jones, an arborist in Taos, said fruit trees are likely to yield a smaller crop this year as a result of the late freeze.
“[There will be] some fruit, but not a big bumper crop,” he said. “Freezing is just a natural way for trees to rest.”
In Santa Fe, the storm couldn’t have come any later for Johnstone and roughly 100 other people who will spend this weekend sleeping at the Interfaith Shelter.
The shelter, which was established with the goal of preventing deaths resulting from hypothermia and homelessness, will close for the season a week from Saturday and not accept men for overnight lodging again until October. Women and children are able to sleep at the shelter year-round.
The shelter used to close in April, but now stays open through the first week of May because of later spring chills, director Joseph Jordan-Berenis said.
Checkout for those who spend the night at the shelter is 7 a.m.
Johnstone said he had spent the overcast morning killing time. He walked the half-mile along Cerrillos Road to Smith’s supermarket in the snow and then sat for two hours with a doughnut and cup of coffee. When he returned to the shelter, there was lunch — chicken and pinto beans — and the closet was open for those who wanted free coats. His was a pilly forest green.
On Friday afternoon, Johnstone waited for the men’s 6 p.m. check-in in the same chair he had claimed that morning. A copy of The Great Quest for Arthur’s Britain by Geoffrey Ashe rested on his lap. He said he wasn’t cold.
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-603-1143 or email@example.com.