Snowfall, high winds hit Fort Dodge area
Blizzard warning in effect today
A winter storm set in early Friday morning, quickly freezing traffic in Fort Dodge, Webster County and surrounding counties. Its grip is only anticipated to get worse heading into Saturday, according to local law enforcement personnel on the roads.
Lt. Dennis Mernka, of the Fort Dodge Police Department, advised against travel in Fort Dodge Friday morning, just a few hours after the winter storm warning went into effect, saying that rapid snow fall had covered 100% of the streets in city limits.
Accident reports and reports of cars getting stuck in ditches started to accumulate around 9:30 a.m., with several reported by noon. No injuries were reported at that time.
There was a report of a semitrailer that became immobile on the Hawkeye Avenue hill.
“Two snow plows couldn’t get him up the hill,” Mernka said. “We had to pull him back down. It’s stuff like that where people could get hurt.”
The FDPD, Iowa State Patrol and Webster County Sheriff’s Office all agreed on a piece of advice: if you don’t absolutely have to travel, stay at home.
In surrounding areas, many people seemed to heed that advice.
A dispatcher in Wright County reported in the afternoon that there had been no accidents in the county on Friday.
No accidents were reported in Humboldt as of the early afternoon.
And despite continuous snowfall in the early part of the day, no accidents were reported in Kossuth County, either.
“We have had pretty heavy snow since 10 a.m.,” said David Penton, Kossuth County emergency management coordinator. “We aren’t seeing accidents. Some blowing and drifting. Plows are out trying to clear the roads.”
Penton said the hope is that most people would stay home throughout the weekend.
“We are just hoping people are being prepared and staying home,” Penton said.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Allan Curtis said the bulk of the snow anticipated for this storm had already fallen throughout most of the state as of Friday afternoon.
“With snowfall there won’t be too much more,” Curtis said. “Some light lingering snowfall. Nothing substantial on the snow front.”
He reported a measurement of 5 inches of snow having fallen in Fort Dodge. That measurement was collected at 3:30 p.m., two miles northeast of downtown Fort Dodge.
As of 1:30 p.m. Friday, 4 inches of snow was measured in Stratford.
Curtis said most areas in Iowa saw between 3 and 5 inches of snowfall.
Despite most of the expected snow already on the ground, conditions could worsen due to predicted high winds.
Webster County and central Iowa is in a blizzard warning. The warning is in effect from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. today.
Curtis said that there doesn’t need to be any falling snow for there to be a blizzard.
“There’s the potential with the snow on the ground to blow around and give you whiteout conditions,” Curtis said.
Wind speeds are predicted to blow up to 40 mph at times.
“We are expecting 25-30 mph winds with gusts pushing 35 to 40 mph (Saturday),” Curtis said. “It’s going to be really windy from the northwest. That’s why Fort Dodge is included in the blizzard warning.”
Precipitation variation may cause more turbulence and wind speeds will severely reduce visibility, potentially down to zero. As that happens, it could take rescuers 12 to14 hours to reach a vehicle stuck on U.S. Highway 20, said Lt. Mark Miller of the Iowa State Patrol.
For those who absolutely must travel, he advised motorists to be prepared with a day’s worth of food, water and warm clothing. Miller also said to avoid stopping on the shoulder of a highway, should you need to scrape your windshield, as it will become dangerous in low visibility. (Use an exit ramp instead.) Do not use cruise control.
“At this point, things are going well only because people chose to stay home,” Miller reported from U.S. Highway 20 as of early Friday afternoon.
He reported many areas of U.S. Highway 20 were either partially or completely covered. By Friday evening, Iowa Department of Transportation maps online showed a tow ban in Hamilton County. Officials from multiple law enforcement agencies expected tow bans to be in place nearly everywhere by the end of the day as conditions became a danger to tow truck drivers.
“We want to alleviate problems, we don’t want to cause them,” said Webster County Sheriff Jim Stubbs.
Miller and Stubbs said that parts of roads and highways more exposed to wind without barriers will be particularly prone to accidents and cars sliding into ditches.
“It seems that Hamilton County’s portion of Highway 20 is more prone where the DOT can’t keep up with pushing the snow, since drifts are happening,” Miller said.
“Folks on the road can become more of a liability than an asset, so don’t drive unless you have to,” Stubbs said.
And while officers all have four-wheel drive, some unexpected complications did pop up in the heat of the severe weather. First, Mernka said that windshield wipers on patrol vehicles were constantly freezing up, to no avail with fresh wiper blades.
First responders found themselves needing to be lead by a snow plow to respond to urgent calls.
The other complication didn’t involve the weather at all: county radios.
Fort Dodge Public Works and FDPD found themselves unable to communicate with each other, since Public Works had upgraded to new digital radios that FDPD had not yet implemented.
“Our upgrade won’t be in for another eight or nine months, but (Public Works) already upgraded to match Fort Dodge Engineering radios,” he explained while en route to deliver them temporary radios to enable interdepartmental communications.
“We weren’t ready for that one, and I don’t think they were either,” he said.
At the Fort Dodge Regional Airport, the flight scheduled to arrive at about 8:40 p.m. was canceled, according to Rhonda Chambers, director of aviation. One other flight departure was combined with another flight.
All other flights went on as planned. One of the runways was closed so crews could focus their attention on keeping one runaway cleared.
“Our crews do a good job of removing that snow,” Chambers said.
Webster County Engineer Jamie Johll said that 38 maintenance employees were on the road Friday, manning 30 dump trucks and 14 motor graders.
They are also armed with 10,000 tons of sand and 1,000 tons of salt.
The severity of the storm brought out two snow blowers, which are typically not used in mild winter storms.
“There’s more use for the snow blowers with high winds,” Johll said, to tackle snow drifts.
He said county employees would work their normal hours, 4 a.m. to 6 p.m., until visibility deteriorates enough to force them off the road, which he anticipated.
Gravel roads will likely be put on the back burner until Monday, he said.
Most county and city offices were closed and vacated by early Friday afternoon. Webster County Supervisors closed the courthouse by 1 p.m. and the Fort Dodge Municipal Building closed at 3 p.m. Surrounding county courthouses in Calhoun and Carroll Counties closed at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., respectively.