Community comes together in blizzard that leaves countless stranded
Winter Storm Xanto hit Perkins County around 12:30 p.m. on Friday, April 13 with wind gusts up to 60 mph, leaving five inches of snow and drifts several feet high.
By 1 p.m., it was nearly a complete whiteout and “all downhill after that,” according to Perkins County Sheriff and Emergency Manager Jim Brueggeman.
“I think this is the worst storm I’ve seen since I was a child,” he said.
As businesses throughout Grant closed to allow employees to travel home, those who lived in town struggled to even see across the street to drive safely, while those who lived outside of town began the trek on the highway, traveling 10-20 mph in zero visibility.
Brueggeman said the northbound lane of Highway 61 became blocked when a semi slid into the east ditch and its trailer remained on the highway. The state then closed the highway, and Brueggeman and PC Deputy Brian Chamness set up road blocks at 10th Street and Central Avenue to divert traffic.
The Plainsmen Inn quickly filled as motorists began getting stranded. Brueggeman asked owners Jason and Ashleigh Noyes if they could work with their pastor, Ben Francisco of the Grant Zion Lutheran Church, to set up a shelter.
They ended up housing 22 adults, three children and one dog. Many of them were traveling on Interstate 80 and began traveling south to get away from the storm, getting as far as Grant before stopping.
Pastor Francisco said they provided shelter for an interesting combination of people, from “millennial hipsters,” to one who didn’t speak English. People from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, heading to Breckenridge to go skiing, on their way to their new home in San Diego, and a hockey tryout in Colorado Springs.
The first visitor arrived at 7 p.m. on Friday evening, and the last at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning.
“They were all very thankful for the hospitality that was available here,” Francisco said.
Brueggeman said Shawn Turner and his family arrived Saturday morning to remove the wrecked semi blocking the highway, as all tow trucks were working along I-80. Perkins County Roads District No. 3 also removed a disabled vehicle from the highway.
Karon Harris, PCSO administrative assistant, fielded calls and provided support for the deputies.
“There were just a lot of people who came together to make stuff happen,” said Brueggeman.
Around 8 p.m., Venango Volunteer Fire Department Chief Steve Tucker received a call from the Phillips County, Colorado Emergency Operations Manager asking for assistance with a vehicle stranded three miles west of Venango across the state line.
“It’s a hard call, because you don’t want to send anybody to go out and get stuck and have them spend the night in a snowdrift, too,” Tucker said.
After sending a message out to his crew, a couple volunteers were able to get the motorist picked up and returned to Venango to be housed for the night.
Soon after, Tucker received a call from Chod Briggs. After assisting and housing some stranded motorists, Briggs reported that he was going back out to help a woman and her two young children, but they were gone. He questioned whether he needed to begin searching for them in the whiteout conditions.
Briggs was able to retrieve her registration from her vehicle, which Tucker gave to Sheriff Brueggeman, who contacted her hometown deputy in Illinois.
Tucker began calling all the hotels in Holyoke, Colo., while Deputy Chamness searched the shelter at the church in Grant. Tucker found her name registered at a hotel in Holyoke, but she wasn’t there. The hotel gave Tucker her phone number, and he was able to contact her. Someone driving by picked her and her children up and drove them to Holyoke. She had been en route to Evans, Colo., when the storm hit.
After she was found, Tucker got another call from Phillips County that two more people were stuck west of town in the country. When they were returned to their vehicles the next day, they didn’t even know they had been on a country road, they thought they were on the highway.
The next call was for a man who had picked up two girls stranded in Madrid before he himself became stranded near Venango.
VVFD worked until 2 a.m. Saturday morning, only to return to assist more stranded motorists that had spent the night in their cars at daylight. Members then spent a majority of Saturday pulling cars out and getting motorists back on the road.
Dale and Eva Grothman, Dennis and Edith Ekdahl, Chris and Tina Costrini, Chod and Pam Briggs, Dustin and Melissa Dolezal and the Venango Community Church all housed people overnight who were stranded in the storm, ranging from musicians to baseball players.
Ekdahls, who housed the baseball player, got his autograph in case he becomes famous one day.
Nancy Reynolds opened the Tin Can Diner and provided breakfast and lunch for everyone. Josh and Stacy Clark did the cooking.
“It was a crazy storm and people made some bad choices that could have put a lot of lives at unnecessary risk,” Tucker said. “This community stepped up to help people in need and they should be proud of what they did.”
Village of Elsie City Clerk Joy Beck said Elsie was without electricity from 3:15 p.m Friday to 8 a.m. Saturday.
Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) notified Beck around 6 p.m. that they would not be able to get power restored until the next day. Beck said she called residents, and with help from Vic Perez, village board member, and Mark Olson with the Elsie Volunteer Fire Department, went door-to-door checking in on them and notifying them they would be without electricity overnight.
“Elsie is so thankful for everything NPPD did. They worked so hard,” said Beck.
After getting power back at 8 a.m., it went back out at 10:45 a.m. on Saturday and was restored later that afternoon.
As the village’s water operator, Beck had to start the generator to keep the water system and wells operating. Many of the residents also had personal generators.
Beck said residents seemed to weather the storm well with no real concerns.
Madrid Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Lee said they were called to assist two separate stranded motorists, but they had already received help upon arrival.
Lee said they opened up the fire hall for a couple stranded motorists in town for hot coffee and a place to keep warm.
Nebraska officials closed several roads during the storm, including a 200-mile stretch of I-80 from North Platte west to the Wyoming border. A parallel section of U.S. Highway 30 was closed, as well as several other roads in the region.
The blizzard conditions left hundreds stranded on I-80 and other highways.
There were two major areas where vehicles had become trapped on I-80 near Sidney. One section was more than a mile-and-a-half long and the other section was estimated to have at least 50 vehicles. Sidney Public Schools offered buses to assist in the rescue, which were escorted to the scene by patrol vehicles and snow plows.
There was one confirmed fatality accident in Deuel County. The fatality was a result of a crash involving two semis in the median of I-80 near Chappell.
Rollo Ward, 61, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, was pronounced deceased at the scene after the semi he was driving eastbound lost control, entered the median, and struck a semi that had previously become stranded.