Blizzard conditions in parts of Nebraska leave several state highways impassable

Blizzard conditions in parts of Nebraska leave several state highways impassable
Nebraska State Patrol

A spring blizzard that brought heavy snow and whiteout conditions to much of western and central Nebraska has shifted to northeast Nebraska.

U.S. Highway 275 between Pilger and Norfolk is closed because of multiple accidents and whiteout conditions, the National Weather Service tweeted before 1:15 p.m. Saturday. “Travel in northeast Nebraska is extremely hazardous,” the weather service said.

At midday Saturday, the National Weather Service posted on Twitter that power lines were down across U.S. Highway 275 at Meadow Grove, between Norfolk and Neligh. The downed lines have led to the closure of Highway 275 there, a State Patrol spokesman said.

“Yesterday, the concern was more west and central Nebraska,” Cody Thomas said Saturday afternoon. “Certainly the issues are in the northern part of the state today.”

The weather service also reported several power outages in Madison County near Norfolk. Travel isn’t advised in that area, the weather service said, citing up to 3 inches of snow, 1/8 of a mile visibility and strong winds.

Parts of southeast Nebraska, including Omaha and Lincoln, are expected to remain on the fringe of the storm system, but could see between 1 and 3 inches of snow.

Late Saturday morning, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts issued an emergency declaration to allow state funds to be used for the response to the blizzard.

“Hundreds of motorists have been stranded, and power outages are reported in many communities,” Ricketts said. “This declaration allows state funds from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to help our communities in their response.”

Road closures, including Interstate 80 and U.S. Highways 30 and 20, have affected travelers and sent them to shelters. Officials in Big Springs and Sidney report that they have opened shelters.

Road conditions remain poor in many parts of central to western Nebraska. Authorities are warning of snow-packed and icy roads in many parts of the state. Interstate 80 is closed to westbound traffic from Grand Island to the Wyoming state line. Eastbound I-80 is closed from the Wyoming state line to Ogallala.

Several state highways also are closed or impassable.

A wintry mix of rain, sleet and snow began in the Omaha area Saturday morning. That mix is expected to turn to snow as temperatures continue to fall throughout the day.

“We are already in the middle of it,” said Cathy Zapotocny, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Valley. The system is expected to move out of Nebraska by Sunday morning.

A blizzard warning remains in effect for parts of central Nebraska and northwest Iowa. Shawn Jacobs at the National Weather Service office in North Platte said wind gusts of more than 50 mph are making for low visibility on snow-packed roads.

“We are seeing drifts of 3 to 4 feet and whiteout conditions,” Jacobs said.

Sidney Public Schools offered buses to assist in the rescue of stranded motorists Friday night. (Nebraska State Patrol)

More than 100 stranded motorists in western Nebraska were helped Friday night by Nebraska State Patrol troopers and authorities from Cheyenne and Sidney. One section of Interstate 80 near Sidney had at least 50 stranded vehicles, according to the patrol. Officers checked each vehicle, and with the help of Sidney Public Schools’ buses, took the stranded motorists to a church in Sidney or a hotel of their choice.

The stranded vehicles near Sidney were still there Saturday afternoon, most of them still parked on the Interstate, Thomas said. That’s part of the reason the westbound lanes of Interstate 80 are closed for longer stretches than the eastbound lanes are, he said.

Ed Sadler, the city manager in Sidney, said the sun came out Saturday afternoon and the snow was starting to melt on the roads.

The focus for the rest of the day, he said, is getting the stranded motorists back to their vehicles.

He estimated more than 1,000 semitrailer trucks stopped in Sidney on Friday night. Most of them went to truck stops and the Cabela’s and Walmart parking lots.

“We just started stacking them up,” he said. “That’s just what happens in Sidney when the Interstate shuts down.”

Sadler said most Sidney businesses closed early Friday, which kept most local people off the roads. “The winds were the worst part,” he said. “The drifting was hard to keep up with.”

State troopers also responded to more than 80 other calls from stranded drivers in the region on Friday night.

The Flying J Travel Center in Big Springs became a kind of shelter for people who were forced off closed or impassable roads Friday night.

Kent Starks, the truck stop’s general manager, said after a nearby Motel 6 filled up Friday evening, more than 100 people camped out inside the Flying J to wait out the storm. He estimated another 50 or so people slept in their vehicles in the parking lot.

“It’s been crazy because people just couldn’t go anywhere else,” he said.

Starks said the store was without full power from about 2 p.m. Friday to late Saturday morning.

“It’s definitely the worst storm this year,” he said. “But people have been great. They are just hanging out. You can’t really fight it.”

A 61-year-old semi driver died when the eastbound semitrailer he was driving crossed the median and crashed into a stalled semi on Interstate 80 near Chappell in western Nebraska, the State Patrol said. The driver was identified as Rollo Ward of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency was working Saturday to get a temporary communications tower to Region 26 after its dispatch tower was toppled by 60 mph winds. Blaine, Garfield, Greeley, Loup, Sherman, Thomas, Valley, and Wheeler Counties make up Region 26 and are affected by the loss.

The North Platte office had received 5.3 inches by 8 a.m. Saturday but was receiving reports of more than a foot of snow in counties along the Nebraska-South Dakota border. A report of 14 inches of snow came from Newport in Rock County, he said.

Closer to Omaha Friday afternoon, hail up to golf-ball size fell in parts of southwest Iowa and southeastern Nebraska as storms blew through.

Hotels in North Platte reported an influx of Friday night guests who had to cut trips short. At 7:30 p.m., the Quality Inn and Suites was nearly booked, with only three rooms left. The local Holiday Inn Express also said they were nearly booked.

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