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Blizzard Lashes Plains With Snow, Strong Wind, Severe Cold

January 19, 1996

A blizzard that seemed to come out of nowhere fast blasted the Plains, stranding drivers overnight in their cars and forcing hundreds of students to sleep on carpets and gym mats at school. They awoke Thursday to eggs and juice served by their teachers.

In Minnesota, authorities ordered even snowplows off the roads and threatened to arrest any driver making a non-emergency trip. Hundreds of accidents were reported.

``As far as I’m concerned, nobody should be leaving home or work or wherever they are,″ said Police Sgt. Dean Mueller in Fargo, N.D., where wind chills were 80 below. ``To get out and get stranded is to risk dying.″

The storm dumped more than a foot of snow in parts of Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and the Dakotas and sent temperatures plunging. It knocked out power to thousands of homes in several states and forced schools and offices to close.

Tornadoes tore off roofs in Arkansas and Texas, where winds gusted to 110 mph. A man and a woman were killed when the roof of a store collapsed in Anthony, Texas.

Ahead of the storm to the east, record high temperatures brought the threat of flooding, particularly in New York and Ohio. Chicago reached 58 degrees, Cleveland hit 60 and Jackson, Ky., 69.

Strong winds and much colder temperatures will be felt along the East Coast Friday, but most of the snow should turn to rain, Mike Vescio of the National Weather Service said late Thursday.

``There’s going to be some strong winds up and down the East Coast, particularly at higher elevations, the Appalachians, the Catskills, the Adirondacks and the mountains of New England,″ said Vescio, a meteorologist at the storm predictions center in Kansas City.

``Once the cold front clears the East Coast, there may be some light snow over northern New England on Saturday,″ he added. ``There’ll be cold air even down to the Deep South.″

The storm caught many by surprise because it moved in so quickly after a spell of mild weather. In Oklahoma, the temperature dropped 40 degrees in two hours on Wednesday. Waterloo, Iowa, was a balmy 54 on Wednesday; on Thursday, the wind chill hit 50 below zero.

``We had a little Florida, then a little Minnesota,″ said Megan Terry at the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.

Minnesota had a little Arctic. Wind gusting to 60 mph pushed the wind chill down to 90 degrees below zero at Crookston. The wind chill hit minus 72 in Grand Forks, N.D., and more than 60 below in parts of Nebraska.

``We went out yesterday just once and that was for food,″ said Irma Abel in Hallock, Minn., where the wind chill was minus-86. ``We’ll be staying out of this stuff today. The only time I’m going out is to walk the dog, and it will be a short walk.″

National Guardsmen used armored vehicles to help rescue stranded motorists in Polk County, Minn. But elsewhere, even rescuers had to stay indoors.

``We’re not sure whether there are people stranded out there or not,″ Minnesota State Patrol dispatcher Roxanne Engum said. ``Because of the zero visibility, we can’t get out there.″

At one point, more than 200 cars were stranded in Nebraska. Some drivers used their cellular phones to call for help as they waited in their cars, their engines running to keep them warm.

``There are people running low on fuel and we’re making them a priority,″ said Maj. Andy Lundy of the Nebraska State Patrol.

About 400 students and teachers spent the night at two schools in Kearney, Neb.

``It just hit so fast, it was a whiteout. The buses just couldn’t go anywhere,″ Principal Jerry Menke said. ``The kids thought it was OK, it was kind of like a slumber party, but it was a big one.″

Teachers rounded up blankets and cots, and wrestling mats and carpet were turned into beds at the high school and junior high. Teachers also helped serve ham and cheese sandwiches from the cafeteria for dinner, and a baked egg casserole for breakfast. The kids even got to stay up late watching movies and eating popcorn.

``It hasn’t really set in yet that I spent a night at school,″ said Christina Bokenkamp, a junior at Kearney High School. ``It’s something I will be able to tell my children and grandchildren.″

Parents and volunteers used four-wheel drives later Thursday to evacuate the students.

The Viking Cafe in Fergus Falls, Minn., closed because of the snow and wind for the first time in more than two decades.

``I can remember walking down Lincoln Avenue about 25 years ago when the drifts were 7 feet high, and we didn’t close then,″ owner Lucky Shol said. ``We didn’t want folks to get out in this weather and get stuck. It’s not worth it.″

Some people refused to let a lot of snow and wind get in the way of a good time.

``Every place is closed but this place. This is our blizzard bar,″ said Tim Todsen, who fought his way through the storm to get to Douthit’s Steak House in Ord, Neb.

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