An all-day snowstorm Tuesday closed schools, snarled traffic and tested the patience of Chippewa Valley residents weary of shoveling and snow blowing after a record-setting snowy start to February.
Just two days after a 40-vehicle crash on Interstate 94 in Eau Claire County during a Sunday snowstorm, the Wisconsin State Patrol reported two more multi-vehicle crashes Tuesday in the region.
One of those incidents, which initially involved eight semitrailer trucks before ensnaring more vehicles unable to avoid the chaos, closed the westbound lanes of I-94 near Osseo for about two hours Tuesday morning, Sgt. Tim Weiberg of the State Patrol said.
By the time that got cleared, another multi-vehicle crash near Merrillan in Jackson County had closed a different section of the westbound lanes of the interstate, he said. Those lanes were closed for three hours and reopened at 2 p.m.
“It’s basically because people are driving too fast for conditions or they can’t stop in time because obviously the roads are snow-covered and slippery,” Weiberg said.
As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, the State Patrol’s northwest region, which extends from Black River Falls to Superior, had responded to about six crashes, 30 runoffs and 25 calls for motorist assistance, including some from semis in the ditch that couldn’t be immediately recovered because of the unsafe conditions.
“We’ve got all hands on deck today,” he said.
While it is unusual to have such major multi-vehicle crashes so close together, Weiberg attributed it to back-to-back storms coming during heavy commute times and occurring on the interstate where “some people aren’t familiar with driving in these conditions like we Wisconsinites.”
In Eau Claire, city police responded to six crashes and 20 slide-ins or stuck vehicles between 5:45 a.m. and 1 p.m., said Bridget Coit, public information officer.
They also responded to a report of a vehicle pulling a couch behind it on the snow on Skeels Avenue, with people riding on the couch. The vehicle and couch were found in the parking lot at Chester’s Bar, and a 19-year-old with a beer in his hand was ticketed for underage possession of alcohol, Coit said.
A particularly frightening weather-related incident was reported at about 4:25 p.m. Monday in Dunn County, where a motorist received minor injuries when a chunk of snow and ice smashed through his windshield after becoming dislodged from the roof of an oncoming vehicle.
The Dunn County sheriff’s office found a motor vehicle had been traveling southbound on Highway B north of 730th Avenue in the town of Tainter when a large chunk of snow and ice flew from the roof of a truck and went through the windshield of the car, causing minor injuries to the driver.
The driver had cuts to his face, but it could have been much worse, said Dunn County Sheriff Kevin Bygd.
He advised motorists to slow down and take time to clean off vehicles before traveling on the highways.
The sheriff’s office had responded to a few crashes around the county by early afternoon, but Bygd said main highways were generally in normal winter driving conditions.
One exception was the hill on Highway C in Downsville, which became extremely icy and had to be shut down for a while so crews could address the slippery conditions.
The weather also caused delays and cancellations of flights to and from Chippewa Valley Regional Airport.
The flights scheduled to arrive Monday night and depart Tuesday morning were both canceled, and the Tuesday afternoon departure was delayed, said Charity Zich, airport manager.
Airports runways must meet more stringent standards to be used by commercial planes than roads and highways do to remain open for vehicle travel, Zich said.
“I think most people agree that if conditions aren’t safe they don’t want to fly either,” she said. “They’re certainly frustrated and we share their frustration, but I think they understand when they look out the window and can’t see very far.”
The storm starting around midnight Monday had dropped 9.5 inches of snow on Eau Claire by 9 p.m. but even more in other locations, including reports of 18.8 inches in Blair, 18 in Arcadia and 15 in Whitehall and Augusta, according to the National Weather Service.
With 28.4 inches of snow so far this month in Eau Claire, it already has been the the city’s snowiest February since records started in 1893, said Weather Service meteorologist Chris O’Brien. And that’s with more than half of the month to go.
Only three of the first 12 days of February had no snow this year, but that pattern finally could be about to change, with the Weather Service forecast calling for only a 30 percent chance of snow on Thursday over the next several days.
“It should be nothing like we’ve been having,” O’Brien said. “It looks like the storm track will head a little further to the south so we may be out of it for a while.”
While nearly all school districts in the region were closed Tuesday, the region’s major universities — UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and UW-River Falls — held classes as usual, sparking complaints from a number of students on social media.
Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations at UW-Eau Claire, said campus officials made the determination to hold classes at 5 a.m. after determining that parking lots, sidewalks and main roads leading to campus were accessible and public transit was operating. Crews did the best they could keeping up with snow removal throughout the day as snow continued to fall, he said.
Key factors that make the university different than K-12 schools are that UW-Eau Claire doesn’t have any makeup days built into its schedule, it can’t extend the school year beyond graduation, most of its students live on campus or in close proximity and college students pay tuition and deserve to get the education they paid for, Rindo said.
“We do make the decision to cancel classes, but I would say it’s rare,” Rindo said, noting that the university closed two days last month when temperatures dipped to around minus 30 and canceled night classes Feb. 5 when a major snowstorm struck the city in the afternoon and evening.
Still, students and staff are advised that they should stay away from campus and make other arrangements if they believe making the trip would put their personal safety at risk, he said.
Meanwhile, at least two UW-Eau Claire clients went the extra mile to get to campus Tuesday, as Bridget Kurtenbach, an associate lecturer in the Business Communication Department, reported seeing two people cross-country skiing down Park Avenue and then entering Schneider Hall shortly before 9:30 a.m. She wasn’t sure if it was two students or a student and faculty member.
“I was really surprised to get passed on the sidewalk by cross-country skiers while heading to work,” Kurtenbach said.