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February brings record snow, crashes, life-threatening situations

A father and son feared for their lives when they got stranded in the middle of a drifted-over Dunn County road.

An Eau Claire County snowplow driver slept at the courthouse when he couldn’t make it home for the night.

Dozens of barn roofs collapsed from the weight of accumulated snow.

The Dunn County sheriff’s office resorted to rescuing two stranded motorists with snowmobiles.

The Eau Claire County highway commissioner authorized plow drivers to drive the vehicles home at night because it was the only way they could get home — and back to work the next day.

Despite all of the efforts to remove snow from roads, area law enforcement agencies responded to hundreds of crashes and likely thousands of slide-ins in which vehicles got stuck in snow banks or drifts.

Welcome to the record-smashing Snowmageddon that was February in the Chippewa Valley.

More appropriately, based on the aching backs of residents fed up with shoveling and snow blowing, good riddance to Eau Claire’s snowiest month in the 126 years of recorded weather history.

Eau Claire received 53.7 inches of snow in February, shattering the previous monthly snowfall record of 35.3 inches that was set in January 1929, according to the National Weather Service.

“It’s pretty remarkable that you had 53.7 inches for the month,” said meteorologist Bill Borghoff of the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen, Minn. “That’s more than a whole winter’s worth in one month.”

He was not exaggerating, as 46.8 inches is the average snowfall for an entire winter in Eau Claire. The normal amount through the end of February is 36.3 inches, or more than 17 inches less than the city got this February alone.

And if it seemed like it snowed almost every day in February, that’s because it almost did. It snowed at least a trace on 21 of the month’s 28 days, Borghoff said.

For the entire 2018-19 winter through February, snowfall in Eau Claire totaled 77.2 inches — that’s 6 feet, 5 inches, or nearly the height of the average NBA player. That makes it already the fifth-snowiest winter since record-keeping began in 1893 and just a foot behind the all-time record of 89.3 inches set in 1996-97, Weather Service records show.

“I don’t think you’re going to have much trouble getting that record,” Borghoff said, noting that average snowfall in Eau Claire totals about a foot in March and April.

And that 2018-19 total doesn’t even include the 3 to 4 inches that were predicted for Friday, as March continued the persistent weather pattern by coming in like a lion. Borghoff joked that it’s too bad this isn’t a leap year because Friday’s snow could have added to the city’s monthly record that he predicted is “unlikely to be broken for quite some time.”

Borghoff attributed the record snowfall to “kind of a freak thing,” with an unusually stagnant weather system and “you guys just being lucky enough to be under the heaviest bands of these systems that have come through.”

The region’s “luck” is likely to continue, he said, as the latest forecast calls for a cold week followed by the pattern becoming active again.

“You could get quite a bit of snow toward the middle of the month,” Borghoff said.

Trapped

Rick LaRock and his 15-year-old son, Blake, are grateful to be able to look ahead at all after a frightening experience surviving blizzard conditions last weekend.

LaRock, of Rock Falls, was driving his pickup along a plowed 960th Street just off Highway H near Caryville in Dunn County last Sunday afternoon when he barreled through a snow drift — everything was so white he hadn’t even seen it until he was in it — and came across two guys in another pickup stuck in the middle of the road.

“They told me to turn around and head the other way, but when I turned around about 10 minutes later my tracks were already gone,” LaRock said.

He promptly got stuck and the windy conditions with gusts up to around 50 mph soon created drifts 6 to 8 feet tall over the hood of his pickup. The road became indistinguishable from nearby farm fields.

LaRock called Awesome Towing, which has its office next door to his house, and co-owner Tanya Goss promised to send help. But even the towing company couldn’t get to him in about four hours of trying that included a tow truck and forklift getting stuck and needing to be towed out. Finally, Goss advised LaRock to call 911.

In the meantime, LaRock and his son were getting hungry, thirsty and, most importantly, low on gas, which was essential to keeping the engine running and the heat on. They eventually climbed in the pickup with the other stranded motorists, who also were getting low on fuel.

After dark, LaRock recalled at one point talking to a sheriff’s deputy and being able to see the emergency lights flashing from a distance he estimated at three-quarters of a mile. The officer indicated there was no way he could get to the stranded motorists and asked if they could walk to the flashing lights. With temperatures dipping into the single digits, LaRock said he didn’t think they’d make it trying to walk over the high drifts.

“I was definitely scared,” he said. “I thought we were goners for sure.”

Finally, authorities got Eau Claire-based Big Rig Towing to send out a massive eight-wheel-drive military vehicle that was able to reach the worried motorists.

“It’s ginormous,” Big Rig owner Jack Raven said of the vehicle normally used to extract semitrailer tractors and buses. “I think we pulled 19 people out that night with it.”

LaRock was incredibly thankful he and his son were among those rescued.

“They saved our lives. I’m positive of that,” LaRock said of the Big Rig crew.

Raven said it’s always satisfying to help someone in need, adding that it’s not uncommon for rescued people to run to the tow trucks to warm up.

The February weather led to a revenue surge and unprecedented call volume at Big Rig.

“These last few weeks have been just crazy,” Raven said. “I had hundreds of calls Sunday. I didn’t even put the phone down between calls.”

‘Stay home!’

Conditions last Sunday were as bad as towing company officials can remember.

Goss summed it up with a Facebook post warning people not to attempt to drive anywhere near Highways C, H, J or E in Eau Claire and Dunn counties: “We can not get to you!!! All time worst conditions we have ever seen in the towing world. 6 foot high snow drifts in places. Many people now are trapped in their vehicles with no help. Stay home!”

In all, Awesome Towing had tow trucks get stuck in the snow at least a dozen times last weekend and had all of the cars in its salvage yard get completely buried in snow.

Goss added that the historic February was kicked off by polar vortex conditions in the final days of January in which temperatures in the Chippewa Valley hit minus 30 degrees, prompting Awesome Towing alone to respond to 75 calls for tows and jump starts in two days, tripling its previous two-day high.

Through it all, she was trying to find a way to get her dad and business partner, Randy Goss, home from the hospital after having his appendix removed. When neither a pickup with a plow nor a skid steer could clear his driveway and he was in too much pain to try to ride a snowmobile to his house, Randy was forced to spend the night in a hotel.

“It was horrible. There was no way to physically get him to his house,” Tanya Goss said.

‘Extreme measures’

When tow trucks couldn’t reach a pair of stranded cars Sunday, the Dunn County sheriff’s office rescued the motorists with snowmobiles.

“I don’t remember us ever having to use such extreme measures before,” said Sgt. Rich Day.

In all, the department responded to 75 crashes and slide-ins Sunday, including one four-vehicle crash on Highway B in which the first vehicle was stuck in the middle of the road and another incident that involved a mother and infant who were stuck in their vehicle northwest of Menomonie for quite some time before neighbors were able to dig them out with skid steers around 9 p.m.

“The wind was blowing so bad that roads were drifting over as fast as they could plow. We had multiple places where roads were closed with drifts 5 to 8 feet high,” Day said. “It was definitely the worst snowstorm I’ve ever had to work.”

Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said his veteran plow drivers reached the same conclusion, with some reporting last Sunday that they couldn’t see anything at all and others saying a foot of snow would blow in behind them as soon as they were done plowing.

One plow driver ran into a car he couldn’t see that had been abandoned in the middle of a road, and in another case, three people reported where they had abandoned cars, but crews still couldn’t find them because they were engulfed in snow. At one point, three county plows were reported stuck at the same time. Highway HH had drifts at least 6 feet high from Foster to Augusta.

At 6 p.m. Sunday, Eau Claire County pulled its plows off the roads and declared a state of emergency, with a dozen roads still closed and impassable. Crews got 11 open the next day but weren’t able to clear Highway O until two days after the storm.

“We kind of waved the white flag for our own safety,” Johnson said.

That night, one Eau Claire County plow driver slept in the courthouse and Johnson authorized others to drive the plows right to their homes because it was the only way they could complete the trip. The next morning, two plow drivers took snowmobiles to work because of impassable roads.

“If they’re not out there plowing, nobody can get anywhere,” Johnson said. “That’s how extreme it was.”

February’s historic snowfall levels also kept law enforcement agencies busy.

Sgt. Cliff Parr of the Wisconsin State Patrol said the agency, which primarily works the Interstate 94 corridor and major U.S. highways, responded to 585 run-offs, 619 motorist assists and 242 crashes in February in 20 counties of northwest Wisconsin. That included a 40-vehicle pileup that closed I-94 in Eau Claire County for 5½ hours on Feb. 10 and another crash Feb. 12 near Osseo involving nine semis.

In the city of Eau Claire, police responded to 336 crashes in February, up 61 percent from the same month last year. Vehicle assists went up at an even faster rate, more than tripling from 89 in February 2018 to 275 last month, according to Bridget Coit, community relations officer for the Eau Claire Police Department.

Roofs at risk

Authorities say dozens of barns and sheds in the region have had roofs collapse from the weight of snow piled on top of them.

The most tragic case involved James Volbrecht, 53, who died Feb. 22 when he fell through a skylight while removing snow from the roof of his town of Union barn, according the Eau Claire County sheriff’s office.

Gary Gullicksrud had 40 cows killed and 20 more injured Sunday when the roof of his rural Strum barn collapsed.

Christopher Arneson of Caryville said the roof of his 6,400-square-foot machine shed collapsed recently, burying his plow truck and most of the equipment at his farm. He estimated the collapse caused $300,000 in damage and as of Wednesday was awaiting word from his insurance company about how much would be covered.

The drifts are so high and firm that Arneson said his two black angus steers have been walking right over the fences meant to contain them.

“The snow pack is so iced over that a 2,000-pound steer can walk right over the fence as if it wasn’t even there,” he said, chuckling as he explained that he lures the animals back by putting out a pail of corn.

Plowing challenges

After all of the snow that fell on west-central Wisconsin last month, plow crews were left with the massive task of moving it off roadways so people could get around.

To get an idea of the scope of the challenge, Eau Claire plow crews typically conduct four or five full plow operations per winter after snowfalls of 3 or more inches. This year they did seven just in February, which equates to an average of one every four days, said Steven Thompson, city street maintenance manager.

“At one point plow operators worked 21 days straight without any time off,” Thompson said. “They have been very professional about the job they’re doing and coming in whenever they’re needed, but they’re probably looking forward to summer even more than most residents.”

While he hadn’t calculated the budget impact as of Thursday, Thompson said the extra plowing undoubtedly has used up a big chunk of the city’s annual plowing budget, including using 3,300 tons of salt and about the same amount of sand to keep the streets in the best condition possible.

Johnson estimated Eau Claire County had used 70 percent of its annual plowing budget by the end of February, with more snow likely the rest of this winter and in November and December.

“It’s been crazy to see us spending so much money so fast,” Johnson said, noting that plow drivers have been working an average of 70 hours a week. “But we’ll figure it out. We always do.”

One of the biggest obstacles crews are facing in clearing streets has been people violating the city’s odd-even parking regulations during snow events, Thompson said.

To support those efforts, Eau Claire police issued 2,614 parking tickets in February, more than 11 times the 234 issued last February, and have pledged to ramp up towing of vehicles violating the alternate side parking rules.

Between snowstorms, the crews are trying to squeeze in snow removal efforts in which they haul excess snow to a dump site off of Galloway Street. Streets are prioritized based on their width, traffic levels and safety concerns related to the height of snow piles.

“Our guys have been working around the clock, and the thing people are going to have to remember is to be patient. This is going to take time to clean up after a record-setting month of snow,” Thompson said. “Before we’re done, it’s going to be melting.”


Front-page
Record snow blows

As I gazed at the world of white piled high everywhere around me, I felt momentarily overwhelmed, as if I didn’t know where to begin.

Then the all-too-obvious answer slapped me in the form of a swirling, surly wind gust flinging snow in my face.

Start at the back porch, of course, right where I was standing, right where a moment before I had struggled to force open the door because of a thick snowdrift piled against it.

Clearing that space, I’d then have to uncover the porch steps hidden somewhere under the foot of snow Eau Claire had received overnight that had drifted even higher, then proceed to the patio, which was necessary to get to the garage, where my salvation waited in the form of a snowblower.

Still standing on my porch, I tried to muster the willpower to begin what would become a nearly three-hour endeavor to clear the deep snow from my corner lot and a couple of neighbors’ properties.

Another blustery breeze to the face, left a dusting of white across my cheeks. I pondered heading back inside, back to an alluring hot cup of coffee and bacon and eggs and a comfy spot on the couch. I could come back out later to complete the arduous task ahead. The snow could wait.

But it couldn’t. I turned dutifully, grabbed the snow shovel I had propped against a porch wall, a shovel covered with icy remnants of too many recent work sessions and began digging out.

Snow complications

I typically don’t mind our Wisconsin winters, and at times I even like them. I enjoy how the season slows down, as if Mother Nature, tired of the hectic pace of spring, summer and fall, decides it’s time for a break, time for a hibernation of sorts for a few (or sometimes longer) months before life winds up again.

I appreciate the silent solitude of hikes through a world wrapped in a frosty white blanket that presents such a sharp contrast to the colorful noise of the rest of the year. Sometimes I revel in heading out into the bitter cold, feeling somehow more alive, as if proving to myself one more time “Hey, I’m still tough enough for this.”

I wasn’t feeling very tough on this cold, snowy morning a week ago. My back and shoulders still ached from shoveling snow a couple of days earlier, and a couple of days before that, and on too many previous occasions for me to remember during a February that had become one extraordinarily long, white blur in my mind. It was a February that will be recalled in future years for both its record snowfall amount (a whopping 53.7 inches, shattering the previous record for February or any other month in this part of the state) and its soul-sapping power.

So much snow at once has complicated our already busy lives. Simply getting around has become increasingly difficult.

Choked with so much snow, city streets, even main thoroughfares, have grown increasingly narrow, like tunnels bordered by castle-like white walls. Two-lane roads have been reduced to tight confines, and motorists must often pull over and take turns, allowing others to proceed down the street before doing so themselves. Drivers cringe at meeting an incoming city bus or snowplow as vehicles pass just inches from each other.

Simply turning onto streets is hazardous, thanks to titanic-size snowbanks that impede motorists’ vision. Last week I took four different ways to work in seeking a safe route and failed to find one as I narrowly avoided being struck by other vehicles each trip.

Rural roads have been even more challenging to navigate as strong winds in more wide-open areas have piled huge drifts across many of them. Beleaguered snowplow crews worked nearly nonstop all month to maintain streets amid the unrelenting conditions, doing their best in an impossible situation.

Even walking around town has proven an adventure. While most Eau Claire residents have done an admirable job clearing their walkways and driveways, some appear to have given up, apparently overwhelmed at trying to keep pace.

During a walk downtown a few days ago, I slipped and slid through patches of soft snow over an icy base as I navigated a narrow path carved between piles of white on either side of me shoulder high. Then the path ended, replaced by a wall of snow taller than me. I pondered continuing, then thought better of it and turned around.

Taking a toll

We here in Wisconsin pride ourselves on our toughness, our ability to endure subzero temperatures, mountains of snow and winters that can envelop nearly half a year and can seem never-ending.

But it turns out we can only experience so many giant snowfalls, endure so much cold, before we start to show cracks in our collective spirit.

The challenges of dealing with our record snow, combined with a recent historic cold snap that dished up life-threatening frigid air, has taken its toll, even on the hardy souls of this region. The difficulties of the situation, and the continuation of such extremes with seemingly no end in sight, has dampened the spirits of even the most optimistic of my friends.

As I was reminded in recent days, there are people out there for whom this winter’s brutal force is much more devastating. I recently interviewed a couple of farmers who had experienced roofs of barns and other buildings they owned collapsing under the weight of so much snow.

Badly damaged structures. Dead livestock. Battered psyches. All of that amid longtime low milk prices and other economic pressures that continue to force more farmers off their land. While I have trivial concerns about whether my snowblower starts, those farmers are rescuing remnants from deep snow and pondering their futures.

Helping out

If there is an upside to the myriad challenges posed by winter’s wrath, it is this: We Wisconsinites often turn our struggles into opportunities to help.

Neighbors clearing snow for each other. Strangers pushing vehicles free from being stuck in the snow. Residents making trips to the grocery store or the pharmacy or other places for those whose vehicles are snowbound or won’t start. People helping people.

Maybe we help others because we all understand the fortitude it takes to endure winters in this place we call home. Maybe it’s because we realize we all need each other to get through this season of darkness in one piece. Maybe it’s because it’s the right thing to do, the way we’re supposed to live our lives.

The other day I was back at it again, guiding my snowblower along my sidewalk, snow piling up in ever-higher heaps. I approached the end of my driveway, home to a towering wall of snow capped at the top like the height of a mountain range.

The snowblower belched a blast at the mass, and suddenly part of the snow wall collapsed, burying the just-cleared sidewalk, avalanche-like. Exasperated, I looked away and noticed my neighbor, Sue Luthy, looking at me, having taken a brief break from clearing her driveway.

Our eyes locked and I shook my head, then laughed and shrugged my shoulders. What else could I do?

March started much like February, with more snow. Who knows when it will stop. Maybe not until June. In the meantime, we’ll do what we always do. We’ll hope for spring. We’ll get by with the help of our family, friends and neighbors. We’ll get to work and make the best of our situation.


State
AP
IN DEPTH: 'Dark stores' tax fight heads to Capitol

With national retailers and municipalities at odds over tax bills, legislators are working to clarify the rules for assessing big-box stores’ value.

Chains such as Walmart, Walgreens and Menards have sued municipalities across Wisconsin, including Eau Claire — and in other states — over their property tax assessments. They claim their stores are built to suit only the original tenant and, because they’re obsolete the moment they open, should be valued as if they were empty buildings, not active businesses.

Municipalities bemoan the so-called “dark stores” approach as a tax loophole retailers exploit at other taxpayers’ expense. When retailers get their property tax assessments reduced, it creates budget gaps that force municipalities to compensate.

“Every time they do that it puts a hole in the budget,” said Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm, whose city was sued by Menards over its tax bills. “It hurts the residents when that happens.”

Meanwhile, those businesses continue to receive municipal services.

“It’s still a structure that requires fire protection, police protection,” said Portage City Administrator Shawn Murphy.

Walmart contested its assessment in Beaver Dam, prompting a settlement with the city that lowered its tax bill.

“Putting that on the back of taxpayers when record profits are being made is hard to stomach,” Mayor Becky Glewen said.

Some courts have sided with retailers, others with municipalities. Municipal leaders and taxpayers have called for legislators to change or at least clarify the rules on how assessors should evaluate big-box stores. In November, 23 municipalities approved referendums asking the governor and Legislature to close the loophole. New Gov. Tony Evers vowed to do so in his proposed 2019-20 budget, but didn’t mention it during Thursday night’s address to the Legislature.

“This needs to be clarified legislatively because the courts are going the other way,” said Rep. Dave Considine, who represents Baraboo and Portage in the state Assembly.

But Illinois real estate appraiser Mike Marous, whose clients have included municipalities and retailers, said the free market — not lawmakers or judges — should dictate how big-box stores are assessed.

“The market will bear it out. That’s the right way,” he said. “When the oversupply ends, the prices will go back up.”

Retailers’ perspective

Critics claim retailers are exploiting a loophole to shift the property tax burden onto everyday homeowners. But Marous said retail chains aren’t crying wolf. Online shopping has reduced brick-and-mortar retailers’ market share, prompting store closures. Supply of big-box buildings is greater than demand.

“You have to adapt to the realities, the changes in the market,” Marous said.

Retailers build stores to fit to fit their unique operations, making them difficult to sell or rent once they’re vacated. And in cases where a retailer relocates to a new building nearby, it’s unlikely to rent to a competitor: One home products chain isn’t going to welcome a competitor into the market by renting to another. This factor depresses stores’ market value.

“None of these guys want each other’s stores,” Marous said.

Under Wisconsin rules, assessors are directed first to consider recent sales of comparable properties when evaluating properties’ value, but they also may consider construction cost and a building’s ability to generate income.

Minnesota tax expert Mike Wedl, who has worked on behalf of Walmart and Menards, said assessors shouldn’t base a store’s value on the revenue it generates. That would be like assessing a home based on the owner’s income.

“It doesn’t demonstrate what the market is willing to pay,” Wedl said.

He said courts have ruled correctly when they’ve adjusted assessments where stores were treated differently than other properties.

“They’re doing nothing different for big boxes than they are for any other property type,” Wedl said. “There’s no loophole.”

Impact on municipalities

Municipal leaders don’t share that view. Many, such as Baraboo, Beaver Dam and Portage, have asked legislators to close the “dark stores” loophole. Murphy, the Portage administrator, said retailers are unfairly pushing the tax burden onto homeowners and other taxpayers. According to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, since 1970 the burden borne by homeowners has increased from 51 to 67 percent. Business’ share has decreased proportionally.

“There’s a cost for (services), and they should pay their fair share and not shift the burden,” Murphy said.

Menards sued Baraboo multiple times over its tax assessments, prompting the city to return more than $15,000 in a settlement covering the home product chain’s tax bills for 2015 and 2016. Last summer, Palm, its mayor, was among scores of municipal leaders who testified at the Capitol in favor of bills that would close the loophole. Those bills were opposed by business groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. The bills didn’t make it out of committee, as they weren’t scheduled for votes.

Palm said he hopes citizen outcry, as evidenced by last fall’s referendum results, will spur action during the upcoming legislative session. “I think if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen this year,” he said. “There’s a lot of support in the state by the taxpayers to get this loophole closed.”

State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he hopes a legislative study committee’s recent recommendations on the issue will become law. These include allowing assessors to value properties based on the income they produce when comparable sales are absent, and requiring property owners to provide the data assessors need.

“Moving forward, Senate Republicans will hope to include some of the committee’s ideas in our discussions as we continue to look at what the best solutions are to this complex problem,” said Fitzgerald, who represents Beaver Dam and is the Senate’s majority leader.

Prospect of lawsuits

Palm said clarifying the rules for big-box stores could prevent further litigation and budget surprises. “You can’t budget for the amount of a lawsuit,” he said.

Considine said retailers hold an advantage in court because they have lawyers on retainer. “They have a whole lot more power with attorneys,” he said. “(Municipalities) can’t afford to fight them.”

Glewen said Beaver Dam opted to settle with Walmart rather than fight in court because it didn’t want to throw good money after bad.

“Resources are stretched already for communities,” she said.

Possible ramifications

Tax expert Wedl said voters have been misled by biased coverage of big-box stores’ tax assessments.

“It’s being misrepresented,” he said. “The articles I read are largely skewed.

“If I’m a voter and that’s all I know, I know how I’m going to vote.”

He said those who voted for referendums supporting change should be careful what they ask for. Wedl predicted properties of various types could see their taxes rise if they’re valued based on their ability to generate income.

“Suddenly everybody’s values are going to skyrocket,” he said.

Real estate appraiser Marous bristled at the idea of lawmakers changing the definition of market value. “You’re just going to have a mess all the way downhill,” Marous said. “There’s a lot of money in jeopardy.”

Without a legislative remedy, Glewen predicted other retailers — in addition to national chains — will start challenging their tax assessments. That could mean less money for schools, police protection and road work.

“I think we’ll continue to see that,” she said. “We’re just asking them to be a partner in our community.”


 Eric Lindquist