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Mother Nature Teaches Us An Overdue Lesson

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Just maybe, this blizzard taught some Minnesotans a lesson. Those of us old enough to remember the more intense blizzards of the past have a deep respect for just how life-threatening the combination of snow, subzero temperatures, and wind can be. When winter’s early sunset combines with wind and snow, you can’t see past the snowflakes hammering your windshield.

We also know that when strong storm systems engulf us, there is brutally dangerous cold air lurking on the backside. It rushes in, creating wind chills that can take your breath away and cause frostbite in minutes.
We were fortunate to get through last week’s blizzard with no lives lost. We haven’t always been so blessed.

There was the February 4, 1984 blizzard that struck Minnesota with winds that approached 80 mph. It started as a gentle, warm early February day with highs in the low 30s. Then large white snowflakes began floating out of the sky, settling softly on the ground, creating a dazzling white blanket. Less than half an hour later, the world was an impenetrable wall of blinding snow accompanied by plummeting temperatures.

Roads disappeared with a driver not able to see any part of the road. You prayed that some fool driving too fast wouldn’t rear-end you. Sixteen people in Minnesota died in that storm.

Then there was what has been called one of the worst blizzards in Minnesota history, the “Super Bowl Blizzard” of Jan. 10-12, 1975. (Vikings were playing Pittsburgh Steelers in New Orleans.) Yes, it lasted three days. Fourteen people died in Minnesota. A heavy snowfall preceded the storm, which saw winds gusting to 60 mph or higher. With the temperature falling to 10 below zero, wind chills approached a minus 50 degrees. Snowdrifts reached 20 feet high, and many roads were closed not for just a day or two, but some more than a week. Deep drifts stranded a train in Willmar. An estimated 15,000 head of livestock died in the storm.  

Too many have stopped paying attention to the weather warnings. Sometimes the dismissive attitude is seated in a lack of experience, but too often, it is a reckless disregard for safety, not just for the driver and any passengers that may be in the vehicle, but also for the people who are then forced to put their lives at risk to rescue them.

Not only do some people venture out in the gathering storm disdainful of the potential dangers, they do so wearing flip-flops, shorts and spring coats. After all, how bad could it get? “I’ve driven through blowing snow plenty of times without a problem,” they reason. The problem arises when the winter storm isn’t just another storm but a blizzard with potentially deadly consequences.

December 22, the day before the blizzard, the National Weather Service warned us that a storm was approaching that could bring 3 to 5 inches of snow and winds gusting to 50 mph. The morning of December 23, a blizzard warning was issued, and we were told that dangerous driving conditions would develop during the day.

“People have a tendency to not want to change plans or their behavior for weather unless they are fairly sure the weather is going have an impact them,” Dr. Laura Myers, director and senior research scientist at the Center for Advanced Public Safety, who studied warnings and how people react to them, told Chaffin Mitchell, a writer with AccuWeather.

“Myers said people get desensitized to watches and warnings after so many don’t produce any impacts for their specific area. When people are given too much lead time, they can get tired of waiting and tend to go back to their business,” Myers told him.

“There is also sociological evidence that people feel silly for taking shelter; that it somehow reflects poorly on their courage,” Mike Smith, Senior Vice President of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, told Mitchell.

With a blizzard approaching, people think they will have time to get home. And, if they can’t, they’ll just call someone to come and get them. Yet, in a matter of minutes, driving conditions can go from difficult to impossible. That person who was going to come to the rescue can’t make it or also find themselves in danger.

Evidence of just how many people paid little attention to last week’s blizzard warning could be found in the ditches and on the highways the morning after the storm. The Minnesota State Patrol reported more than 1,000 vehicles littering the highways Dec.24.

In the 13 miles between Benson and Murdock, there were 23 vehicles in the ditch or stranded in snowdrifts on U.S. Highway 12. At one point, there had been 45 to 50 vehicles stranded, Sheriff John Holtz said.

We know of one young man who couldn’t be reached for nine hours last week. Every avenue of rescue was blocked by stranded vehicles, including a semi jack-knifed blocking both lanes of Minnesota Highway 7. Law enforcement, highway crews, and sheriff’s deputies couldn’t get to him. His cellphone went dead hours before he was rescued.

The next time the National Weather Service issues a blizzard warning projecting 3 to 5 inches of snow, 50 mph winds, and falling temperatures, think about the potential consequences of venturing out.

Think about being prepared just in case you get stuck. Does your vehicle have a full tank of gas? Do you have extra warm clothes, or a sleeping bag, with you? Can you keep your feet warm? Is your cellphone charged, and do you have a charger with you? Do you have something to drink and eat?

These days we treat the extremes Mother Nature throws at us as an inconvenience, not a threat or danger. We may not pay the consequences of overconfidence now, but it takes just one reach too far to put us in deep trouble.

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