Sheriff: Stay home
WORTHINGTON -- The warnings began days ago. Ice. Heavy snow. High winds. Some meteorologists have referred to the expected bad weather as "the blizzard of the century" and "the worst storm in 25 years."
"This thing has been predicted as one of the biggest storms we've had in a long time, and it was predicted a long way out," said Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening. "People should pay attention."
Wilkening said he'd rather be too cautious than underestimate the storm's power and is recommending no travel at all. Anyone who was traveling for the holidays should have left Wednesday morning, he added.
Wilkening said the only travel today and for the next couple of days should be in emergency situations, and if someone does have to leave the house, be ready.
"Make sure there is a winter survival kit in the vehicle, adequate clothing, a full tank of gas, a cell phone and a cell phone charger," Wilkening said. "Don't leave your house unprepared."
Nobles County Emergency Management Director Dan Anderson has been doing some preparing himself, making sure he touches base with local fire chiefs and several others regarding information reporting to Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Storm-related events such as power outages, evacuations or search and rescues will be reported to Anderson so it will be on record for the governor's office.
"If it is big enough and affects enough people, it could end up being a presidential disaster declaration, but I don't think it is going to end up there," Anderson said.
The blizzard will certainly keep him on his toes, he said, but many of the efforts that may need to be made are already written policy or in place and ready to implement.
"It is written policy that if the hotels fill up with stranded motorists, we would open a shelter, which would be through the American Red Cross," Anderson said.
According to Worthington Police Captain Chris Dybevick, the first and foremost consideration when planning and implementing for severe weather is safety, both for the responding officer and members of the public.
"For this weekend, in addition to our regular vehicles, we have outfitted two four-wheel-drive vehicles with supplies shovels, tow straps, cold weather gear, etc.," he stated. "Each vehicle is manned by at least two officers. We have also made arrangements for alternative parking and garaging of officers and equipment. We have a couple of different sites where officers can go if they do not feel the law enforcement center is accessible."
Staying operational around the clock is another concern, he added. Just getting to and from work can be a chore, and he has some dispatchers who are planning to stay at work.
While it is law enforcement's job to come out and help those who are stranded, Wilkening said he hopes his department doesn't get calls from somebody who landed in a ditch or snowbank because of poor visibility and icy roads -- especially after no travel was advised and plenty of warning was given. His concern is not only for the citizens of the county, but for his deputies.
"We don't have magic vehicles that will get through when yours doesn't -- we have the same as everybody else," Wilkening cautioned. "My guys have families, too, and I want to see them come home safely."
Dybevick said the police will always do their best to answer emergency calls in Worthington.
"We obviously have an advantage because it is in town, but there are some places, depending on the wind and snow, that are not accessible with the equipment we have," he explained. "One glaring example is First Avenue Southwest. It always blows closed in severe weather, and people always get stuck. Now, if you get stuck and I can't get to you without getting stuck, how am I supposed to help? It is a common problem we deal with. If the roads are closed and no travel is advised, please stay home. If you go driving around and get stuck, you might be there for a while."
Anderson said the storm would be par for the course for a winter in Minnesota, but the holidays complicate things a bit.
"If it weren't a holiday season, it wouldn't scare me much," he said. "But because it is Christmas and knowing people want to get someplace for the holiday, I think we're going to see people out there. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
If a call of a stranded motorist is received, Wilkening said his deputies and dispatchers will assess the situation.
"We'll find out what they have with them," he explained. "Are there small children? Do they have a full tank of gas, adequate clothing, water and food?"
If the situation is critical, Wilkening said a decision would have to be made on how his department would get to the stranded people, even if they have to attempt to make arrangements to follow a county or state plow to the vehicle. Dybevick said arrangements can be made with the street department for heavy equipment to clear a path for emergencies, but this does not mean they are in the towing business.
"We are happy to call a tow for you, but officers are not to put themselves in harm's way because someone decided to get stuck, he cautioned. "We work closely and depend on the help and support of the sheriff's department, state patrol, ambulance services, and street and highway departments."
Nobles County Chief Deputy Chris Heinrichs said his department members will do everything they can to get to any emergency, but people need to be patient and should be prepared to stay in their vehicles for extended periods of time if they become stranded.
If you find yourself sitting in a vehicle in a snowbank or ditch, stay with the car, Wilkening stated. Run the vehicle to stay warm, and get out to check the exhaust occasionally to make sure the pipe isn't covered, which could cause carbon monoxide issues inside. But he is firm on recommending no travel at all.
"I'd rather overcall this thing than have somebody get frozen out there," Heinrichs stated. "I'd prefer they not travel in the weather that's coming, but I can't stop them."
The beauty of a winter storm, Anderson believes, is the fact that they can generally be predicted in advance, as this one was.
"Maybe people will heed the warning," Anderson said hopefully. "Maybe it will sink in."