Dec. 30, 2009
HARTINGTON — The Christmas of 2009 was definitely one for the books.
Even though the National Weather Service predicted the storm three days in advance of it hitting Cedar County, people still tried to travel during the holidays which resulted in numerous accidents and stranded people.
Hartington ambulance, Hartington Fire, the Nebraska State Patrol, Nebraska State Dept of Roads and the Cedar County Emergency Management team worked together to help cover accidents and rescue stranded motorists due to accidents on Highway 81, according to Emergency Management Director Kevin Garvin.
Close to 20 stranded motorists were rescued from the storm on Christmas Day.
Two state snow plows, along with two Hartington ambulances, made it out to Hwy 81 to rescue people who were stranded due to traffic accidents.
“We made two separate trips. Two ambulances went out on the first trip – we didn’t know how many people were out there,” said Hartington EMT Carol Hamilton. “One ambulance went back on the second trip. We brought them back to Hartington.”
Two people stayed at Bob and Carol Hamilton’s house and a family of four were housed in their rental property. Seven adults and two kids stayed in another rental house, while Dick and Jolene Donner took in two adults at their house.
On Saturday the Hartington ambulance made a transport to the hospital in Yankton.
“The state plow went all the way to Yankton and back with us,” said Hamilton.
On Christmas Eve a call was received that a vehicle was stuck and people were stranded in Dixon County on Hwy. 20 near the Cedar/Dixon County line. Snow plows from the State Dept of Roads and the Laurel ambulance were able to reach the people and they were taken to Laurel.
Cedar County Commissioner Dave McGregor estimated there were between 18 -20 inches of snow that was dumped on Cedar County over the Christmas holiday.
“It is unbelievable – this is a tremendous amount of snow. A whole winter’s worth of snow came at one time,” said McGregor. “Everyone seems to be okay. I am thankful the power stayed on.”
McGregor has taken calls from people wanting to get back home and farmers with stranded cattle but there were not any calls dealing with life threatening emergencies.
McGregor said it will take a tremendous amount of work for the road department to get the county roads open.
Snow accompanied by strong winds kept the road crew off the roads on Thursday, Christmas day and part of Saturday.
The plows left the shop at Hartington between 11 a.m. and noon on Saturday to start clearing snow off the roads.
“The plows headed out at daylight on Sunday and Monday mornings.” McGregor said. “Some areas are bare and then there are huge drifts to get through.”
Commissioner Frederick Pinkelman said this has been the worst winter storm he remembers seeing since 1968.
“A couple of plows went out on Saturday – but they came right back in,” said Pinkelman. “It was no use – the snow filled back in behind the plows.”
The plows made it out the first thing on Sunday morningm but opening the roads may take longer than usual.
“It is bad. The plows can’t get as much done as they usually would because of the deep snow,” Pinkelman said.
Calls have been coming in asking for assistance in opening roads in Pinkelman’s district.
“At the onset of the storm an ambulance had to go out on a county road for a call,” said Pinkelman. “The plows went out but were called back as the ambulance made it out and back.”
Snowplows opened the roads on Sunday morning to enable a county resident, who was having medical problems after surgery, to get to the emergency room.
Other calls included stranded cows and help needed to get a milk truck out to a dairy farm.
Pinkelman was not aware of anyone that had been in a life-threatening situation during the worst of the storm.
“The wind was the real culprit of the storm. Part of the roads was swept clean – other areas have humongous piles of snow,” Pinkelman said. “As tough as these drifts are it will be impossible to keep any kind of a schedule for opening the roads.”
The blizzard that struck Christmas Eve and lasted all of Christmas Day finally showed signs of letting up Saturday morning.
As a result, Saturday was expected to be a day of digging out for Norfolk and most of Northeast and North Central Nebraska.
The Nebraska State Patrol was not recommending travel in Northeast Nebraska on Saturday morning.
At one point on Friday night, which was Christmas night, nearly every major highway and other roads in Northeast Nebraska were closed, including U.S. Highway 81 from Yankton to Columbus and Highway 275 from Pilger to Norfolk.
In cities and towns, such as Norfolk, conditions weren’t any better.
Norfolk Mayor Sue Fuchtman said it was one of the more memorable blizzards in years, mostly because of the wind. Probably the most fortunate thing was that it occurred on Christmas Eve and Christmas when travel was not essential for most people.
“I don’t know that we’ve experienced winds this consistent,” Fuchtman said. “It seemed like it was consistently blowing. I can remember winds blowing hard four to six hours or eight hours, but this has been for a couple of days.”
Fuchtman said she appreciated the businesses that closed and people who stayed off the streets, giving street crews a chance to do their jobs. After a blizzard like this, it will take some time to get all of the streets cleared, she said.
The winds caused severe drifts, even in town. In some residential areas, drifts reached the roofs of some houses or were in excess of 5 feet on the street.
Al Roder, Norfolk city administrator, said all snow removal crews were out at 2 a.m. Saturday and were still working at 9 a.m. to clear major arterial streets. Usually those streets can be cleared in three or four hours, but it was taking much longer because of the wind.
“Pushing the snow is not an issue,” Roder said. “We got a foot of snow on Christmas and about 6 inches the day before that. That’s not a problem. It’s the 30- to 40-mph winds that keep blowing it back.”
Roder said he anticipated that it would be 9 or 10 p.m. Saturday before Norfolk streets were cleared. Then with forecasts for winds to remain in the 20s over the next few days, it could be several days of work for street crews to keep the streets open, he said.
On Christmas Day, crews were out just trying to keep the main routes available for people in case of emergencies. Because of the winds, that often meant that streets blew shut within about an hour after plows went through, he said.
Another thing hurting snow-removal efforts on Saturday were stranded or stuck vehicles, Roder said. Snow plows were having to slow down or stop in some places because of abandoned vehicles, he said.
A snow emergency that was declared Thursday night in Norfolk remained in effect on Saturday. That means in areas where parking is normally allowed on both sides of streets, it is restricted to the even-side only. Better yet, crews were asking that all vehicles be removed from streets if possible.
Gary Sudbeck, manager of the Sunset Plaza mall, said efforts were to try to have the mall open at 10 a.m. Saturday, with noon being the latest planned opening. Snow plows had been working since 3 a.m. and had many of the parking lots cleared by 8 a.m. Saturday.
“That’s the plan right now (for an opening at 10 a.m.),” Sudbeck said early Saturday morning.
The day after Christmas typically is busy for merchants, with many businesses trying to help customers with exchanges or to be available to redeem gift cards, he said.
A trooper who drove Saturday morning before sunrise from Madison to Norfolk said travel was treacherous.
The wind was still blowing, roads were 100 percent snow and ice covered, and there were areas where white-out conditions existed, leaving drivers unable to tell where they were going, the trooper said.
The Nebraska Department of Roads sent plows out at 5:45 a.m. Saturday, but it would be hours before they would be able to get roads cleared, the trooper said. Until the winds let up later on Saturday, some roads will have to be replowed, he said.
Snow plows were pulled off the highways about 4 p.m. Friday. The only exception was when the patrol received calls of stranded motorists.
In those cases, a plow would lead the way to try and reach the motorist. About 35 to 40 people were rescued from their cars around Northeast Nebraska, the trooper said. Some people were able to get their vehicles pulled out, while others had to leave them on the highway, the trooper said.
Along with white-out conditions, the snow plow operators will have to avoid some abandoned vehicles on roads, which were expected to be towed into towns later on Saturday, the trooper said.
Efforts were being made to clear U.S. Highways 81 and 275 first, then other highways such as 91, 32 and 13. Next, other roads will be plowed, the trooper said. Even with four-wheel-drive vehicles, travel was expected to be difficult on Saturday, he said.
So far during December, Norfolk has received 28.4 inches of snow and more than 32.6 inches this season. That’s more than three times the usual 10.4 inches of snow the city usually receives so far this early in the season.
Nearly every major highway and other roads in Northeast Nebraska were closed, including U.S. Highway 81 from Yankton to Columbus and Highway 275 from Pilger to Norfolk.