‘Nobody remembers anything like this’

Published 12:21 pm Monday, February 25, 2019

Blizzard dumps 11 1/2 inches on Albert Lea; plows working to clear roadways


Albert Lea area residents on Monday continued digging out from the weekend blizzard that dropped almost a foot of fresh snow.

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Whiteout conditions and massive snow drifts closed numerous area roads, including interstates 35 and 90 on Saturday. The northbound lanes of I-35 reopened at about 4:30 p.m. Monday, along with I-90 west of Albert Lea. The southbound lanes of I-35 between Albert Lea and Owatonna remained closed because of drifts and icy conditions, as did I-90 east of Albert Lea, as of press time.

In addition to closing numerous roads, the storm led to the closure of all area schools and many businesses, including Northbridge Mall.

“Nobody remembers anything like this,” Freeborn County Emergency Management Director Rich Hall said of the impact of the storm.

He said the biggest problems for the snowplow drivers have been the large drifts and vehicles stuck in the snow.

As of Monday morning, about 46 stranded motorists remained at the emergency shelter set up at the Albert Lea National Guard Armory, which was down from more than 70 people at the height of the storm.

According to the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 82 people were rescued from treacherous highways in Freeborn County, and seven people were rescued from trains that were stranded.

Hall said the people had been on two stuck Union Pacific trains east of Freeborn. One train reportedly got stuck in snow, and a second train was sent down to help and got stuck, too. He noted the people had been stuck aboard the train for 36 hours, as of Monday morning.

He said National Guard members and the Albert Lea Fire Department were sent down to rescue an ambulance crew that was stuck in snow responding to a patient suffering from a medical issue near Emmons Sunday night. Both the ambulance crew and the patient were rescued, and the patient was taken to Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” Hall said.

In addition to providing food, water and basic necessities at the emergency shelter, volunteers and county staff have worked with the hospital to make sure the people who were stranded had their medications available when needed.

He said the shelter would not have been possible without volunteers from the Albert Lea Salvation Army, county public health workers and the chaplain from the Sheriff’s Office, who Hall said have helped make everything run as smoothly as possible. The American Red Cross has paid for some of the meals for the people stranded.

Tyrone Rucker of Mankato said he was grateful for the staff and volunteers who have helped him the last few days.

Rucker said he was on the road for his job through MedSpeed Saturday evening, had left St. Marys Hospital in Rochester a little delayed and ended up about 5 miles away from Albert Lea when he encountered whiteout conditions and ended up driving off the interstate at about 10 p.m.

National Guard members rescued him and another woman behind him, and he said he had been at the armory since about 11:30 p.m. Saturday.

“At the end of the day, you’re under a secure roof,” Rucker said, noting that he and the others at the shelter have had everything they’ve needed.

Siying Huang of Ames, Iowa, said she and three others had been in the Twin Cities on Saturday and were on their way back when it began snowing. She said at first it was just snow, and so they just decided to drive a little slower.

They stopped at a gas station for a while and thought things would be fine so they got back on the interstate. But then the wind picked up, Huang said, and they couldn’t see anything. She said they called the police, and ultimately the police and another vehicle that came to help both got stuck, as well.

While she was eager to get home, she said everyone at the shelter had been taking good care of her and the others she was there with.