A Sunday blizzard resulted in at least 20 cars left stranded Monday morning and several roads throughout Winneshiek County and Northeast Iowa blocked shut by snowdrifts eight to 10 feet high.
"Some people got caught in it, hoping to beat the storm and they didn't," commented Winneshiek County Engineer Lee Bjerke.
Three inches of snow fell in Decorah Sunday, followed by extreme cold temperatures Monday, when a record low for the high temperature was set. The high for Monday was -6; the previous record low/high temperature for Jan. 27 was -4 in 1902.
County Road W-42 (the Ossian blacktop) had a series of seven- and eight-foot drifts, Bjerke said. The largest was near the old country schoolhouse at Lincoln Highway. Greg Torgrim, chief deputy for the Winneshiek County Sheriff's Department, turned drivers back at Washington Prairie Lutheran Church south of the blockage early Monday morning, Bjerke said.
A 10-foot drift near Country View Golf Course on Locust Road temporarily blocked that road early Monday, Bjerke said, and snowdrifts also prevented travel on North Winn and Frankville roads.
Highway 52 near Reilly Construction in Ossian was closed Monday morning where two semis and two cars were stuck, Torgrim said. He said State Highway 139 near Kendallville closed for a time early Monday due to cars stuck in drifts.
Winds gusting up to 50 miles an hour quickly caused roads to drift shut and limited visibility. County plows quit operating by about 3:30 p.m. Sunday but were back at it by 5 a.m. Monday. Bjerke said county crews aren't typically working after dark unless there is an emergency involving an ambulance or fire truck.
Many county roads don't have wide shoulders, and snowplows could easily become stuck after dark, he said.
"There's not a lot of room for error ... we don't want a driver to get hurt. We just don't run all night," he said. " A lot of stuff we opened Sunday, but on Monday you couldn't tell we'd been there."
High winds continued into Monday, requiring some roads to be replowed later in the day. Area schools were closed Monday and Tuesday.
"It was slow going," Bjerke said Tuesday morning. Most of the county's hard-surface roads had been opened by Monday afternoon, but some of the gravel roads weren't plowed until Tuesday, when at least one lane of traffic was opened.
Only the county's "V plows" could get through some of the drifts. That was the case on Winnamakee Road on the east edge of the county, where a regular plow could make no progress.
"The V pushes through like a knife," Bjerke said.
Bjerke said the National Weather Service issued "tons of warnings" for Sunday's storm, categorized as a blizzard due to the sustained high winds blowing snow, but that didn't stop some people from traveling.
"People really need to prepare for these things. We can't guarantee we can get them out," he said.
Torgrim said the drivers of some of the stranded vehicles had to find shelter at nearby farmhouses.
"There was zero visibility and they drove into snowdrifts and didn't know what hit them," he said.
Although only about three inches of snow fell during the storm, he said the high winds caused havoc on roads.
"I've lived here since 1977 and this is the worst I can remember," Torgim said.
"The wind got ahold of all of it ... I'm sure we got snow from Mason City," Bjerke said. "The Ridgeway foreman has been with the county since the early 80s, and he said these were some of the biggest drifts he's seen."
"When we have a blizzard, people shouldn't be traveling," Torgrim said.
When snowplow operators encounter vehicles stuck in drifts in the roadway, it requires them to "back track," Bjerke said.
"It really causes problems," he said.
When motorists get stuck, they need to inform authorities, Bjerke added.
"Don't leave it and not tell anybody," he said.
County plows have hit vehicles hidden in snowdrifts.
"That's hard on our truck and it's definitely hard on the vehicle we hit," Bjerke said.
Ditches are full
Now that the county's ditches are full of snow, it will become "tougher" to keep roads clear, Bjerke said.
"We're running out of places to put it. We're going to have a lot more drifting problems if we don't get a big thaw. Once the ditches are full, it becomes interesting," he said.