A very white Christmas
WORTHINGTON -- The Christmas Blizzard of 2009, powered by a merger of two separate storm systems, dumped more than 15 inches of snow on southwest Minnesota, brought holiday travel to a standstill, caused a 14-hour power outage in Slayton and cost the City of Worthington alone about $50,000 in snow removal costs.
The heaviest snow was over by Christmas evening, as the storm pulled itself west, leaving only a few inches to fall overnight.
"It's really bad luck that it happened on Christmas Eve and Christmas," said Richard Ryrholm, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D. "It shows that the weather doesn't care what time of year it is."
Though southwest Minnesota was struck hard by the blizzard, South Dakota and portions of northwest Iowa were hit even harder, with strong winds and snow accumulations of 12 to 18 inches as of Christmas evening, with more expected to fall before the storm moved on.
Although the National Weather Service had initially called the storm a "once in a quarter-century" weather event, southwest Minnesota typically experiences such a storm once a decade or so, Ryrholm estimated.
"We see some pretty big storms over there," he pointed out.
In Slayton and the surrounding area, the power went out at approximately 5:22 p.m. Christmas Eve, but went on at about 7:30 a.m. Christmas Day.
"It was very good. Nobody was out on the roads. People stayed in and stayed safe, so we didn't have very many (emergency) calls, and that was good," said a representative of the Murray County Sheriff's Office. "We appreciate the public's consideration."
Surprisingly, the Murray County Sheriff's Office didn't have any accident calls Thursday evening -- all of their calls were people wondering when the power was going to be turned on again.
Many area churches cancelled Christmas Eve and Christmas services due to the no-travel recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening and the National Weather Service.
"We were worried about people being out on the roads and what might happen, so we cancelled," said the Rev. Richard Ricker, pastor at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Worthington.
Christmas Eve services at 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. were cancelled, along with the 10 a.m. Christmas morning service.
Ricker anticipated offering the usual church service on Sunday and said his congregation was considering celebrating Christmas in January.
"We called farmers and they couldn't get out of their yards. I went on the roads myself and... that was so treacherous, if you made a wrong turn you'd end up in the ditch."
The City of Worthington's fleet of 12 snow removal units was out plowing the town at 5 a.m. Christmas Day, along with some rented units, and finished at about 5 p.m. The snow was heavy and wet, which actually made it easier for city plows -- less snow blew around and created problematic drifts on the roads.
"Our biggest problem has been... we have people blowing their snow back out onto the street, and that's prohibited by city code," said Jim Laffrenzen, the City of Worthington's Director of Public Works. "If I see someone doing it, we have two options: (they) move it back off the street, or (I could) have them cited."
Just because no plows are in view doesn't mean the culprits have gotten away with it either. Often neighbors call Public Works to complain about people who shove snow back into the street after the plows have gone by.
"That's one thing I won't tolerate this year," Laffrenzen said.
Finding a place to put 15-plus inches of snow is also problematic in town. The only place for snow storage within the city limits is the boulevard, so when people shove their snow into the boulevard or street, it takes away the city's snow storage place.
"We'll just keep pushing it (around), and hopefully we'll get a January thaw," Laffrenzen said, warning motorists that his plow people could not pull, push, or tow anyone if they got stuck due to liability issues.
The plows will be sent out again today, but city officials hope to send them out only once, if possible, rather than plowing the whole city twice, due to budgetary reasons.
Last year, snow removal cost the City of Worthington about $3,402 per inch of snow. Should that estimate be accurate for this year, the 15 inches of snow that had fallen as of Friday will cost the City about $51,000. The sum includes costs from fuel, depreciation of machines, rental equipment, chemicals and personnel.
The snow piles in the middle of the roads, called "wind rows," will not be removed until Monday morning, in order to allow business owners downtown the opportunity to clear their sidewalks. In downtown Worthington, business owners are permitted to place their sidewalk snow into the wind row.
"I've got a dedicated group of (snow removal) operators who take it seriously and are out there to do the job right," Laffrenzen said. "And that's what we're in the business for. We have a calling, and the good Lord said 'These guys are going to move snow and serve the public,' and that's what we're doing."