Thursday, May 2, 2013: Residents throughout Dunn County and most of western Wisconsin awoke to discover that Mother Nature either has a really warped sense of humor or one heck of a mean streak.
Only the most avid aficionados of winter cheered at the sight of the thick blanket of snow covering the landscape and weighing down trees and power lines. Heaving a resigned sigh, the rest dug out their parkas, mittens and boots, and headed outside to clear away what would eventually add up to a foot or more of the white stuff.
The record-setting May snowstorm packed a wallop, closing all the county’s schools and causing myriad traffic accidents and power outages. As the flakes continued to fall Thursday and well into Friday morning, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation urged people to refrain from venturing out unless absolutely necessary.
A winter storm warning was in effect until 7 p.m. for Chippewa, Dunn, Barron and Rusk counties, along with others toward the Minnesota border, while Eau Claire County was under a winter weather advisory.
The weather service said that as of 9 a.m. on Thursday the heavy snow band was only about 30-40 miles in width and was continuing to shift slightly to the east. The narrow band proved to produce some widely varying snow totals.
At 7 a.m. each morning, Menomonie Wastewater Treatment Plant staff measure the day’s temperature and precipitation. On Thursday, 4.5 inches of snow had fallen, the equivalent of 1.25 inches of melted precipitation. By Friday morning, an additional 8 inches of snow was tallied.
The National Weather Service collected varying snowfall reports. As of Friday morning, local totals included: Menomonie 16.0 inches; Wheeler and Ridgeland 10.8; Boyceville 10.5; Elk Mound 10.0; Colfax 9.0.
Heavy snow was a factor in a fatal interstate crash between two semis in Dunn County early Thursday morning. State Patrol Sgt. David Fish says one semi rolled over on a slippery Interstate 94 west of Menomonie and was struck by the second semi. Fish says the driver of the first semi, John D. Philippi, 45, of Stacy, Minn. was killed.
Driving the second semi, Robert E. Denton, 48, from Mattoon, Ill., was transported to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
The crash occurred around 1 a.m., and eastbound I-94 was closed for several hours due to the crash, reopening shortly after 7 a.m. Traffic was rerouted from Exit 32 north on Highway 128, then east on U.S. Highway 12 to north Menomonie, before returning to the interstate at Exit 41.
“We had to call the street department out to prep the roads for the alternate route,” Lt. Todd Swartz of the Menomonie Police Department said.
From 8 p.m. the night before, the Dunn County Highway had crews out working on Interstate 94. While the closure made it hard to tend to that section of the highway, “We were able to get enough guys on it after it was opened up to eventually get things cleared up,” said Jesse Rintala, acting highway commissioner. He noted that given the amount of traffic that uses the interstate, “When it’s heavy and wet snow like that ... it can quickly become compacted on and difficult to come off.”
As the temperatures rose to above freezing around mid-morning, Rintala said the sections that had been plowed were well on their way to melting. “That definitely saves on the amount of chemicals and salt that’s required,” he observed.
All over the region, trees and branches cracked under the weight of the wet snow. The strain often caused overhead power lines to sag and break.
Rintala reported that while it was an issue everywhere in Dunn County, the hardest hit areas proved to be north around Highway 64, especially in the northwest corner.
“They had probably the most amount of snow and trees down alongside or into the road,” he said, adding that there were also quite a few trees down Weston area around County Highway X.
It isn’t just the trees and powerlines that posed problems, Rintala added. “With that wet and heavy kind of snow and the time of the year, it’s hard on equipment. We have to be careful with how soft the shoulders are as well not to really tear things up on the truck — or otherwise.”
In Menomonie, Public Works Director Randy Eide wryly observed that while things went well on Thursday, “This is not what we want to be doing in May.”
Extra workers were brought in from the wastewater and parks department to help the city’s street department clear away the mess. Working with the police department, Eide said the crew worked first to identify the safety issues, places where power lines were down or across the road.
“Then we began cleaning up branches that weren’t involved with any kind of power line first while waiting for Xcel on the power line issues,” he said, some of which were still being resolved as of Friday. By late Thursday morning and early afternoon, crews worked on plowing most of the side streets.
Next week, they’ll be working on clearing away the boulevard trees and branches that were lost in the storm. The roar of the city’s industrial strength chippers will be heard in neighbors around the city.
Homeowners who spend the weekend cleaning up the debris can haul branches to the curb for street crews run through the chipper, Eide said. Otherwise, he added, they can haul brush to the city’s solid waste site on Gilbert Creek Road west of the city. Usually open on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the week, Eide added the site will be kept open during the weekdays over the next couple of weeks.
Menomonie Fire Chief Jack Baus was relieved there were no serious fires on Thursday as crews were kept busy attending to other emergencies.
In addition to downed power lines, he said, “There were a lot of vehicle crashes, slips and falls.”
And of course, slippery, unplowed roads made it difficult to respond to the scene, especially in the rural areas. “It wasn’t too bad right in the city,” he said.
A lot of the calls that came in about power line fires went unanswered unless there was a threat to a nearby structure. “Rather than tying our members and the vehicles up just watching something like that ... we should be available for all these other incidents that really needed us.”
Lt. Swartz said when he got to work at the Menomonie Police Department at 7 a.m. on Thursday, only three accidents with no personal injury had been reported. Then the calls starting pouring in.
Because the volume of calls about crashes and slide-ins was so large, Swartz said the department had to resort to “cold reporting” when there was no injury: “The parties would exchange information and would end up coming into the police department and obtaining a self-reporting form when there was damage of $1,000 or more.”
In addition to calls about downed power cables and trees in the roadway, the department fielded reports about traffic signals obscured by the snow — along with a power outage by the hospital that knocked out the traffic lights at Stout Road and 21st Street.
“But by midday, the main roads, the slush and stuff had melted off, so traveling in the city wasn’t too bad,” Swartz said.
The Chippewa Herald contributed to the report.