Kandiyohi County plow drivers and first responders thanked for hard work during pre-Christmas blizzard
Stephanie Felt, Kandiyohi County Emergency Management director, gave a recap of the pre-Christmas blizzard — including thanking three county plow drivers who helped rescue stranded drivers.
WILLMAR — On Tuesday, as Kandiyohi County was in the midst of receiving yet more snow, attention was turned back to the pre-Christmas storm that brought not only snow, but high winds, blizzard conditions and life-threatening wind chills.
"Winds were blowing the previous day's snow and causing wind chills up to 40 degrees below zero," said Stephanie Felt, Kandiyohi County Emergency Management director.
Felt, at Tuesday's Kandiyohi County Board meeting, presented a recap of the county's response to the earlier storm, taking special notice of all those who assisted in rescuing stranded drivers, finding shelter for those stuck in unfamiliar towns and getting the county back up and running as soon as possible.
"A lot of people came together," Felt said.
By 1 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23, major roadways in Kandiyohi County were being shut down and Felt reached out to the Minnesota National Guard for assistance to rescue stranded motorists.
"But (that request) was denied since all available assets ... were deployed in efforts in Renville County," Felt said. "We were essentially on our own."
Felt turned to a variety of different agencies and organizations for assistance including Kandiyohi County Public Works, Sheriff, Dispatch and Rescue Squad; Blomkest Fire Department and city clerk; Lake Lillian Ambulance; CentraCare Ambulance; Minnesota State Patrol; and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Felt said she didn't have an exact count on how many motorists became stranded during the storm. Twelve were brought directly to Willmar by rescuers. Three Kandiyohi County plow drivers — Trevor Mahlum, Chad Jeseritz and Brian Klein — were instrumental in reaching those vehicles.
"These guys led emergency vehicle convoys to rescue 12 stranded motorists in little to zero visibility conditions," Felt said. "Without them, the rescues couldn't have happened."
Mahlum said conditions were near impossible for the large equipment he and his fellow crew mates were driving. It was almost too cold for the trucks to operate and the drifts were a major challenge.
"I actually got stuck. I was pounding on it one way and the drift caved in on my plow," and he had to be pulled out by another vehicle, Mahlum said. "It was scary."
Staff from the Public Works dispatch helped direct the plows to the stranded motorists. Mahlum said without dispatch, the plows might not have reached those people because it was so hard to see where you were during the storm.
"We couldn't see anything," Mahlum said.
Mahlum thanked the Kandiyohi County Board for purchasing all the equipment they used to reach stuck vehicles and to clear away the snow left by the storm.
"Without that we wouldn't have been able to go out there," Mahlum said.
Many other stranded motorists were helped by local plow companies, various cities' first responders and good Samaritans.
"One gentleman was picked up who had locked his keys and his phone inside the vehicle and was not dressed for the weather," Felt said. "He was essentially saved by a good Samaritan."
Blomkest Fire Chief Matt Erickson thanked the plow drivers for all their assistance. He said there were about eight vehicles stranded south of Blomkest and the occupants were brought to the Blomkest Community Center which was opened up as shelter.
Erickson said the city clerk got coffee and snacks brought to the center, and those stranded eventually got to Willmar.
Ross Whitman, with Lake Lillian ambulance, said about 20 people sheltered in Lake Lillian.
"There were a lot of vehicles stranded all over the place," Felt said.
The residents of Kandiyohi County who stayed at home during the storm also played a huge role.
"It takes many people to put their lives in danger for rescuing, so heeding warnings and not traveling not only keeps community members safe but helps keep our responders safe as well," Felt said.
Customers of Willmar Municipal Utilities also did their part by responding to the emergency alert sent out by Kandiyohi County Emergency Management asking for people to conserve energy during the peak of the storm.
"Our use load dropped approximately one megawatt. That could have been the reason that we avoided rolling blackout," Felt said. "That is huge."
The county commissioners gave all who assisted during the storm a standing ovation at Tuesday's meeting.
"This is a big deal. You guys are our heroes. We have heroes in our backyard," said Commissioner Corky Berg. "Thank you very much for risking your lives out there for the rest of us."