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Motorists were stranded in extended pre-Christmas blizzard, despite warnings

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An extended blizzard containing snow, winds, and dangerously cold wind chills disrupted travel across Hancock and Winnebago Counties for several days leading up to Christmas.

Despite a saturation of warning messages via local and social media, many holiday travelers found themselves stuck in the height of the storm and seeking emergency assistance, according to Andy Buffington, emergency response coordinator for both counties. He estimated that at least three dozen such calls to the emergency response centers in each county were received.

“We’re already coming up with better processes in both counties,” said Buffington, noting that sufficient warnings and recommendations are not effective if they are not heeded. “I think the vast majority of people took the warnings very seriously. Our frustration is people knew about this well in advance. It appears some of them had no urgent need to be out in it, which can present potential peril for emergency response and participating law enforcement.”

Buffington said his departments had already started working on after-action reports with emphasis on reducing the numbers of people trapped in their vehicles and avoiding any worse outcomes.

“We want to do a better job of triage,” Buffington said. “We don’t want people trapped, but the reality is our law enforcement folks don’t have magic vehicles and can run into trouble too. We identify things (when they call) like who is in the vehicle, their ages, how much fuel, and any special medical needs to evaluate whether they can afford to be there much longer, especially when so many people are calling 911 and the non-emergency line asking for help.”

Buffington noted whether there are elderly and young children stranded in cars is also a consideration during such storms. He said it is a concerning problem when conditions are so bad that plows are pulled off the road and there are people who do not take the warnings and recommendations seriously.

“We understand people don’t know what else to do at that point and they want law enforcement to come to help them,” Buffington said. “Local media did a great job of telling people so they would know this is serious, this is dangerous. They did a really good job at getting the information out there.”

It all meant a more hectic lead-up to the holiday than usual as road crews in both counties and law enforcement and emergency response personnel responded to more calls during the blizzard warning that extended from Dec. 22 into Dec. 24 when winds intensified following snowfall.

“It was as bad as we’ve seen in a long time,” said Buffington, noting that winds were even higher than reported and well over 50 miles per hour at times. “We were between significant snow that went west and north and blowing snow was coming from there. We probably saw a lot of Minnesota snow in this and it could have even been from the Dakotas.”

Visibility was near zero at times and wind chills dipped to the minus 30s and 40s below zero Fahrenheit. Buffington said that it was a “perfect storm” because, unfortunately, it came through during holiday travel and people’s draw to get to family can be stronger than common sense.

“By early Wednesday (Dec. 21), we were advising people traveling to go now or wait until Saturday,” Buffington said. “It’s not common, but sometimes you really have to advise everyone against travel, if you deem it’s necessary because of such severe winter weather.”

After focusing on hard-surfaced roads due to the fact that drifting made it difficult to keep them open, both counties pulled all plows off the roads due to visibility and for safety by the morning of Dec. 23. They remained off the roads through the day. Highway 69 was blocked in spots between Leland and Forest City and between Klemme and Goodell as was Highway 18 west of Garner into Dec. 24.

On Christmas Eve morning, a number of people were still stranded in vehicles. Winnebago County advised that snow had become “rock hard” in spots, making it difficult to move and get even with the right equipment. County officials continued to advise against travel as many roads were still reduced to only one lane and were expected to drift back shut in spots. The Hancock County Secondary Roads Department warned the public that Highways 18 and 69 remained impassable according to 511ia.org in Hancock County.

“Snow blowing over snow actually creates enough friction to harden it up on the crust,” Buffington said. “Drivers can break through it, hit the powder underneath, lose control, and get stuck. We were also concerned the whole time about power. There was a little power disruption east of Garner that was addressed pretty quickly. We were fortunate in that regard.”

Both counties delayed tackling gravel roads until Dec. 24, asking people to continue to allow time for the plows to clear the roads before traveling. Hancock County reported that while making a path on gravel roads on Dec. 24, paved routes were still top priority because winds made them quick to drift back again. 

“Saturday at daylight, we were back at it,” said Hancock County Engineer Jeremy Purvis. “It took a long time to punch through on the first gravel roads.”

Purvis said Hancock County crews were back out again at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning as well as the next morning and were working on widening snow clearance to prepare for future snowfall events.

The good news is that much warmer weather with highs in the 30s was forecast for the upcoming week.

“It wasn’t the amount of snow, just how much it blew,” Purvis said.

During the Dec. 27 supervisors meeting, supervisors thanked Purvis, Buffington and workers for their efforts over the holiday. Due to the winter storm, the Hancock County Courthouse was closed on Dec. 22. It remained closed until Dec. 27 for the Christmas holiday.

“A lot people’s furnaces went out because the drifts covered up the vents, but at least they could go out and take care of it,” Supervisor Sis Greiman said.

“Those drifts were hard as a rock in places,” Buffington said. “We told people to go slow, but not all people do that.”

Purvis said that the secondary roads department coordinated closely with Buffington and emergency response staff.

“If there are emergencies, we’re there to respond,” said Purvis, noting that it was not necessary. “We’d probably go out with the Sheriff and make a path. We are available, but we want it to go through dispatch, so there is a paper trail.

Supervisor Chair Jerry Tlach and Purvis stressed that it needs to be an actual emergency for extreme measures to be taken.

“There isn’t anyone in that building (law enforcement center) that would not do anything to save a life,” Buffington said. “We’re going to start planning for the next one because I don’t think we’re probably done yet.”

“It was bad enough that people should have just stayed home,” Tlach said.

On the same day, Winnebago County supervisors also discussed the aftermath of the storm.

“During that crazy wind and blizzard, I had a few phone calls of stranded people,” said Supervisor Chair Susan Smith. “I did get a number of really good texts and emails back.”

She proceeded to read one that stated: “Just wanted to let you know that Ethan (Schutter, maintenance superintendent) came to our rescue today. The two gentlemen that came out were extremely professional. We appreciated the effort in getting home safely.”

“People’s safety is paramount,” Smith said. “Thanks for doing that.”

Supervisor Bill Jensvold of Buffalo Center told of local man who had a heart attack on Friday, Dec. 23.

"No ambulance would go out, so his brother drove his pickup out there and got him to the hospital," said Jensvold, noting that they were monitoring him.  “He was sitting in the hospital all weekend long. There were no surgeons that were going to be on duty until (Tuesday).”

“The snow was hard,” said Schutter, who also said “If there are kids involved or medical (concerns), we definitely try to get out there and get to them. There were three of them, I think, that we did. We got in and out and didn’t have any problems.”

“The storm is over, but now we have some pretty important cleanup work to do for some people,” County Engineer Scott Meinders said. “I’ve seen some places where they stacked up some piles and the piles have gone from four feet to 12.”

Meinders said the roads department would probably be making some calls and asking how it could help address the excess snow that piled up in the coming days, which could reduce concerns about future drifting snow. Schutter said it was the result of a lot of people stacking snow at the end of their driveway or pushing it across the road.

Fortunately, no serious health impacts or deaths that could be contributed to the blizzard were reported locally.

Rob Hillesland is community editor for the Summit-Tribune. He can be reached at 641-421-0534, or by email at rob.hillesland@globegazette.com.

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