Jeremy Raby said he wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.
“I’ve never seen so many cars and semis in the ditch — they were everywhere,” the 22-year-old Ottawa resident, who commutes to work in Olathe every day, said of his five-hour adventure to get home on I-35 in a blinding snowstorm Thursday morning. “I even saw a snow plow that had been stranded. That’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
A fierce snowstorm fueled by gusty winds dumped 9.5 inches of snow on Ottawa and most areas of Franklin County — stranding more than 125 motorists, closing the Walmart Logistics distribution center west of Ottawa for only the second time in its the facility’s history, canceling classes at all Franklin County schools and causing a couple of minor power outages.
The drive between Raby’s home in Ottawa and his job at Cintas, a uniform supply services company on Old Kansas City Road in Olathe, typically takes about 40 minutes, he said. But road conditions were anything but normal Thursday.
“I left work in Olathe at 8:30 Thursday morning and I hit the Franklin County line about 10, and at the Wellsville exit, I-35 was basically down to a single lane of traffic,” Raby said.
Along the way, Raby said his green 1999 Dodge Ram 4-wheel-drive truck had to plow through several snow drifts.
“I would hit the snow drifts and the snow would come up over the top of the truck,” Raby said.
Near the Wellsville exit, Raby said, two tractor-trailers were stuck side-by-side, shutting down the southbound lanes of I-35.
“Then a car pulled up beside me, thinking he could get around them, and he got stuck,” Raby said.
After pulling out the stuck motorist with his truck, Raby said he and his father, Jim Raby, who also works at Cintas, got out of Raby’s truck and joined some other men in digging out one of the semi trucks.
“They told us it would be a five-hour wait for a tow truck to move the semi, and I wasn’t in the mood to wait five hours,” Raby said. “Fortunately, there were some guys with shovels that were willing to help us dig the semi out.”
Once the semi had gained its freedom, the Rabys climbed back in their truck and started following a Kansas Department of Transportation snow plow that also had been detained by the gauntlet of stalled trucks, Raby said.
“The snow plow started slipping off the road, too, but he got it straightened out, and we were able to follow him back to Ottawa,” Raby said about 3 p.m. Thursday. “We got back to Ottawa about 1:30. My dad lives out in the county near Central Heights school, and I’m not sure if he’s going to try and get home tonight or if he’ll stay here.”
A four- to five-hour wait for a tow truck was not uncommon Thursday as law enforcement agencies responded to 127 reports of motorists sliding off Franklin County highways and roads throughout the day Thursday, Jerrod Fredricks, master deputy with the sheriff’s office, said.
“Of the 195 calls for service Franklin County dispatch received Thursday, 127 were for slide-offs and another five were for non-injury accidents and one for a possible injury accident,” Fredricks said. Details about the possible injury crash were not available Friday afternoon. “Dispatch normally gets about 75 calls in a day. So, with 195 calls, you can see we were swamped all day long. Fortunately, the non-weather-related calls were not for any major incidents. We didn’t book anyone into jail Thursday.”
About 10 deputies, the sheriff and undersheriff were patrolling county highways and roads throughout the day in cruisers and the department’s Humvee, Fredricks said.
“Most of the slide-offs occurred on I-35, K-68 and U.S. 59,” Fredricks said. “We rescued between 50 and 60 motorists from their vehicles and took them to their homes, hotels, gas stations or other locations where they could stay warm. We even had off-duty officers helping out. It was all hands on deck.”
Recording 127 slide-offs in one day was a rarity, even for a Kansas snowstorm, Fredricks said.
“We haven’t seen that many in one day in a long time,” he said.
Fredricks said he thought sheriff’s deputies did a good job under often brutal conditions, with gusting winds, frigid temperatures hovering in the teens and heavy snows that hampered visibility and made roads and highways impassable in most places.
Some motorists opted to remain in their cars and wait for tow trucks, but with only a handful of tow services in Franklin County, it took a long time to get to everyone, Fredricks said.
“We kept checking on people who decided to wait for a tow truck, and some of them, after waiting for three or four hours, decided to let us take them some place warm,” he said.
The Red Cross set up a temporary shelter for stranded I-35 motorists at the First United Methodist Church in Wellsville. Red Cross officials did not return calls Friday. Steve Gillespie, Wellsville police chief, said he wasn’t sure how many motorists took advantage of the shelter.
Some Ottawa hotels filled up quickly with stranded motorists. But as of 2 p.m. Thursday, 100 hotel rooms were still available in the community, Vickie Eckard, Franklin County Emergency Management coordinator, reported.
Cities hit too
“Most of the slide-offs occurred on I-35 and out in the county,” Gillespie said. “We really didn’t have that many problems [in Wellsville]. There was one vehicle that was stuck in the middle of the road because of the depth of the snow. We got a lot of snow in a very short period of time.
“I think Wellsville probably had about 8 to 10 inches, total,” the chief said. “I thought the public works guys did a great job of getting out and clearing the roads so people could get around.”
Ottawa police officers responded to 51 vehicle slide-offs in the city between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday, Capt. Adam Weingartner, with the police department, said. Officers also responded to a pair of non-injury wrecks in the 600 blocks of South Cedar and South Mulberry streets, Weingartner said.
“We did not have any major incidents,” he said.
Ottawa public works crews, in 12-hour shifts, worked around the clock Thursday and were continuing to clear roads on Friday, Andy Haney, the city’s public works director, said.
“I think we’ve had a plow down every street in the city now,” Haney said about noon Friday. “Our crews are working very hard, but there’s still a lot more work to be done.”
The public works director said residents who had not had their street plowed by a city crew at least once by this point should notify the public works department, (785) 229-3630.
The City of Ottawa issued an ordinance at 8 a.m. Thursday restricting parking on arterial streets, in school zones and around Ransom Memorial Hospital, 1301 S. Main St., Ottawa, until snow removal could be completed. These designated streets and locations are marked with red and white “Snow Route” signs.
Haney encouraged motorists on Friday to continue to seek out off-street parking — not only on snow routes — but throughout the community.
“If the car is parked on a street, we will plow around it, but that will leave a windrow around the vehicle that will make it hard to get out,” Haney said. “So, it’s to everyone’s benefit to keep parked cars off the streets.”
Public works crews will begin the arduous task of removing mounds of plowed snow from the downtown business district and other areas sometime this weekend, Haney said. The snow will be dumped at the west parking lot of the Orlis Cox Sports Complex, near the intersection of Beech Street and West K-68, he said.
“We will be creating a mountain of snow in the west parking lot at Orlis Cox, so we are also asking motorists to please keep that parking lot clear of vehicles,” Haney said.
Franklin County public works crews continued to clear roads throughout the day Friday, too.
“The paved roads are open. The gravel roads should be open by this evening,” Jim Haag, Franklin County public works director, said Friday morning.
About 300 tons of a sand/salt mixture had been applied to the county’s more than 500 miles of roadways, Haag said.
County public works crews began clearing roads at 6 a.m. Thursday and have been working double shifts ever since, Jeff Welton, county road superintendent, said Friday.
Ottawa received 9.5 inches of snow, according to official readings taken at the city’s water treatment plant on First Street where it meets the Marais des Cygnes River. The storm forced all Franklin County school districts to cancel classes Thursday and Friday.
The storm also prompted Walmart Logistics to shut down its distribution center on K-68 west of Ottawa for only the second time — due to a snow-related closure — since it opened in June 1995, Steve Harris, director of human resources, said.
“We called off the evening shift Thursday and the day shift this morning,” Harris said Friday. “The roads were hazardous, and we didn’t want to put our workers in harm’s way.
“Those ‘thundersnows’ can dump a lot of snow in a hurry,” Harris said of the storm that was accompanied by occasional claps of thunder. “I heard at one point Thursday morning, we got about 3 inches of snow per hour.”
Harris said the move to shut down the evening and day shifts affected about 600 workers.
The storm caused at least two power outages, Alan Radcliffe, Franklin County Emergency Management director, said. One outage was near Wellsville, which affected about 400 customers, and the other small outage was in north Ottawa, Radcliffe said. Power had been restored to both locations Friday, he said.
Firefighters with the Ottawa Fire Department responded to a sparking power pole at 8:29 p.m. Thursday near the intersection of U.S. 59 and Sand Creek Road. Firefighters observed no hazard, and a Kansas City Power and Light Co. crew responded to the scene, Jeff Carner, Ottawa fire chief, said.
Radcliffe acknowledged the combined efforts of county and city law enforcement, emergency responders and county and city road crews for their help in dealing with the winter storm.
“I think everything went real well [Thursday]. Everybody was real busy yesterday, and I think that our county plan worked and I don’t know that there were any real big issues,” Radcliffe said Friday. “I think things will be back to as close to normal as can be anyway by tomorrow.”
Herald staff writer Crystal Herber contributed to this article.