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A shovel is not enough: Winter survival on Minnesota’s roads

Jan. 16, 2020

Several rescued travelers file out of a National Guard SUS-V to take shelter in an armory during the February 2019 snowstorm.
Several rescued travelers file out of a National Guard SUS-V to take shelter in an armory during the February 2019 snowstorm in southern Minnesota.

Congratulations! You’ve made it through November, December and half of January, and the winter weather has been fairly reasonable. But if the forecast is any indicator, winter definitely isn’t over yet. Now would be a bad time to let your guard down, especially where winter driving is concerned.

Take Feb. 24 and 25, 2019, for example. The dates themselves may not ring a bell, but surely you remember the southern half of our state getting pummeled by a winter storm. In some areas, 13 inches of snow fell, and winds gusted up to 50 mph. Large swaths of interstates and other roads were closed, but more than 600 people had to be rescued from their vehicles. State troopers, sheriff’s deputies, state conservation officers, snowplow drivers, National Guard soldiers, and even local snowmobile clubs mobilized to rescue stranded motorists.

And after they were rescued, they needed a place to stay until the roads were safe enough to continue their journeys. Once the hotels and their lobbies filled up, the locals began offering convenience stores and churches to stranded travelers. More than 200 took refuge at National Guard Armories in Owatonna, Albert Lea, Olivia and St. James. The St. Cloud State men’s hockey team even stayed in the St. James jail when their bus got stuck between two snowdrifts.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Barker of the Minnesota Army National Guard was among the rescue workers that weekend. They deployed in SUS-Vs – those are tracked vehicles with a wide wheel base that are designed to sit on top of the snow – and got to work.

Most of the stranded people Sgt. Barker rescued were “in pretty good spirits,” he remembers. “Some didn’t even want help.” They thought they were prepared, but only had a shovel. And with that much snow, a shovel wasn’t going to get them out of their predicament. As Sgt. Barker put it, “Most people were more prepared to get stuck than to survive.”

For example, many didn’t have food or blankets on hand. Some had dressed for cold, but not for long-term survival in extreme temperatures – because rescue teams are so busy during snowstorms, it can take hours for help to come once you get stuck. One couple Sgt. Barker rescued had driven up from Kansas City overnight. The road they wanted to take was closed, but instead of stopping someplace safe, they tried to take a different route. That’s how they ended up stranded on a gravel road in the middle of the night, wearing only light jackets.

Another call came from a janitor at an interstate rest stop. Some truckers and other travelers had been plowed in, and no one had any food. The SUS-Vs were able to bring MREs and other food so that the truckers could eat without having to leave their rigs behind. At another call, even an ambulance and a sheriff’s vehicle got stuck. “It happens to everyone, not just civilians,” Barker says.

The lesson in all this? As Barker puts it, “If the state’s telling you not to drive, don’t drive. Take what law enforcement says to heart – it’s not a suggestion.” And if for some reason you absolutely must drive, have a winter survival kit with you. Stock it with things that can help you survive in your car while you wait for rescue: food, water and blankets. Don’t forget a red ribbon or bandana to tie to your car so that rescuers can find you more easily, and a cell phone charger for your car. Print out this Winter Safety Checklist and go over it before you leave to make sure you’ve thought of everything.

Remember, winter isn’t over yet – March tends to fall behind only November and December for the snowiest month – so there’s still a chance that a severe snowstorm could disrupt your travel plans. When it does, make sure you’re ready.