Memories frozen in time Big storm had heartwarming — and heart-stopping — moments

Carole Gordon signals victory as she and husband Jerry meet in the middle of their sidewalk in Papillion. Behind is Bob Henthorn clearing a driveway.

Editor's note: This article originally was published on Dec. 25, 2014.

Five years ago, a blizzard of epic proportions paralyzed the Midlands, upending holiday plans and leaving people stranded far from home.

Families postponed get-togethers, flights were canceled and neighbors used snowblowers to clear streets.

For some people, the weather simplified the holiday to its purest of forms.

“In my 50 years of life, this was my favorite Christmas,” Cindy Rolfs Karsten of Omaha posted on The World-Herald’s Facebook page. “Not only was it beautiful but it was quiet. ... So simple and peaceful to be home that night with our lights on and fireplace going.”

For others, it was a time of tragedy — several people died on Nebraska roads — and hardship, their elderly parents unable to join family, or their children stranded far from home.

“My mother was snowed in for days,” a Papillion reader posted to Facebook. “Depression set in. She passed away the day after her January birthday.”

The full gamut of life spilled out in memories shared from that storm.

“I was managing a motel and made Christmas dinner for those that were snowed in at the motel,” a Pottawattamie County resident shared on Facebook. “It was a beautiful Christmas! It was my first Christmas free after being in prison and starting my new life.”

Clifford Cole, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in North Platte, said at the time that the blizzard deserved “superstorm” status for its power, duration and span.

The storm stretched from Texas into Canada. It lasted 32 hours based on readings in South Dakota, he said, and winds there peaked at 76 mph. Some areas of South Dakota received more than 30 inches of snow.

In the Omaha area, the storm began as freezing rain and snow on Wednesday, Dec. 23. Snow began falling in earnest on Christmas Eve and continued into Saturday, Dec. 26, according to weather service records.

From that Dec. 23 through Dec. 26, Omaha received 11.5 inches of snow, with most falling Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. That two-day combination delivered Omaha, Lincoln and Norfolk their highest two-day snow totals on record.

The Christmas blizzard was one of a series of storms that made the winter of 2009-2010 historic. Omaha went a record number of days — 88 — with snow on the ground.

Leah Skorupa-Mezger said she and her husband had just moved back to Omaha from New Jersey with their 8-month-old son.

“The week after that storm, we put in an offer on our first house. I’m pretty sure we didn’t know what our yard looked like until March,” she posted to Facebook.

While 2009 brought a brutal storm, in Omaha it didn’t bring the coldest Christmas. That happened in 1983, when the city had its deepest blanket of snow on the actual holiday. Although only a trace of snow fell Christmas Day, there was 13 inches of snow on the ground from earlier storms. The daytime high peaked at 2 degrees and overnight temperatures dropped to a record 17 below zero.

At the height of the 2009 storm, eastbound Interstate 80 closed near Grand Island and westbound I-80 at York. Travelers and semitrailer truck drivers filled hotels, motels and truck stops.

Lindsey Natvig describes a frightening drive on I-80 before finding refuge in Grand Island. Abandoned cars and jackknifed semis littered the road. The snow was so intense, they passed an accident scene that seemed to emerge from nowhere. Belongings were scattered outside the vehicle. Natvig’s enduring visual image is a young firefighter carrying a dog from the wreckage.

“I will never, ever travel in those conditions again,” she wrote on Facebook. “We are all lucky there are all kinds of people who will help in those circumstances.”

For many people, the storm meant long hours of hard work.

A Stromsburg woman who said she was five months pregnant at the time posted to Facebook that she spent 42 hours at her job at the local nursing home, either working or sleeping, with just a one-hour break to hurry home and watch her kids open presents.

Liz Loseke of Lincoln remembers spending Christmas Day shoveling snow and chipping ice at her family’s Columbus feedlot. The work started at 4 a.m. Christmas Day.

“We spent our entire day outside in the blowing snow and wind to make sure that our cattle were well cared for. The presents were not opened until the next day, and we had no power at our house because we used all of the generators at the feed yard to keep water flowing to the cattle,” she posted to Facebook.

“It was a long day, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”

In Crawford County, Iowa, more than 3,000 residents had no electricity due to an outage that had begun two days earlier. Still, they weren’t left to shiver in their homes.

Donations of food and other supplies poured in to a community center in Manilla, which, with the help of generators, became a Christmas refuge for those who had been without power since the start of the outage. Cots were set up in the community center, and firefighters picked up those who couldn’t get there on their own.

For former Omahan Katie Ryan-Anderson, the storm brought a tiny miracle into her life: Nine months later, her first child, Cole Ryan Anderson, was born.

“Quite a life-changer,” she wrote via email from her North Dakota home.

This report includes material from The World-Herald archives.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1102, nancy.gaarder@owh.com

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READERS' MEMORIES OF THE BLIZZARD:

» We always seem like we have 10 places to go and a hundred people to see on Christmas Day, both of us having large families. This blizzard allowed us to stay in for the day and just RELAX and enjoy Christmas instead of running around like chickens with our heads cut off, and making sure the right gifts are going to the right places. I love my family sooooo much, but can we have another blizzard this year? —Sarah Wilson

» My daughter and I were up here from Olathe and were snowed in for three days at my sister’s house in rural Neola with no running water and no electricity for part of the time. We melted snow to flush the toilets with. —Antonia Vaiskunas

» I had to work and was stuck at the hospital but made the most of it. In the “off” hours, spent some time getting to know some co-workers better and watched movies on a laptop. One asked me out a couple weeks later. We’ve now been married 3 years and have 2 sweet babies. —Suzanne Neal

» We were on westbound I-80 when we experienced whiteout conditions around Crete. We were going to exit at Seward but the road into town was littered with abandoned cars, so we turned around and got back on the Interstate. There was a terrible accident in the median at York. We did not see any of it until we were directly next to it. Belongings were strewn everywhere. Suddenly, I saw this young firefighter carrying a dog out of the wreckage. I thought how awful we let commitments put ... lives in jeopardy. We followed an amazing truck driver all the way to the Grand Island exit (and booked a room at the Holiday Inn). ... The staff had been called in, and they prepared an amazing buffet for all. We were so appreciative. I will never ever travel in those conditions again. We are all lucky there are all kinds of people who will help in those circumstances. —Lindsey Natvig

» We had to take two sleds, one with Christmas presents on it and one for my mom, brother, and I to get five blocks down the hill to my grandma’s. It was actually one of the most fun Christmases I’ve ever had, though. —Claire Marlow

» Five years ago, I was supposed to meet up with my family. I’m from Omaha, but I moved to North Dakota after graduating from Creighton University in 2007. Because of the weather, I stayed with my then-boyfriend, now husband, and celebrated with his family. Nine months later, we gave birth to our son, Cole Ryan Anderson. He turns five in September. Quite a life-changer, as I never expected to stay in the upper Plains for so long. —Katie Ryan-Anderson

In my 50 years of life, this was my favorite Christmas. Not only was it beautiful but, it was quiet ... silent. We have a 4WD truck and drove around Elkhorn looking at Christmas lights (most people were home as they were snowed in) plowing through drifts. So simple and peaceful to be home that night with our lights on and fireplace going. — Cindy Rolfs Karsten

» Christmas in 2009 was special for me as I was in Afghanistan with the Corps of Engineers. I left Omaha on October 19 with snow on the ground, and my son (Adam) kept me informed of all the snow that came after I left. ... Christmas in Afghanistan intensified the meaning of “home” and missing home. ... While the brutal snow was terrible for most, I cherished the pictures my son sent me and the comfort of seeing a good ol’ fashion Omaha winter. It’s amazing how images of a blizzard can sustain the feeling of home! —Doug Latka

» The huge blizzard of Christmas Eve 2009 came as I was working as a front desk agent at Hilton Omaha. Hundreds of travelers were stranded as airports and roads were closed. I trudged my way to work, walking through snowdrifts, trying to put myself into “the Christmas spirit” so I could be cheery and encouraging to guests whose holiday plans were probably ruined. Early into my night shift, a couple of men approached the front desk and asked how they could make arrangements for the shuttle (Christmas Day). I felt badly as I told him that, unless the weather changed dramatically, the shuttle wouldn’t be able to take them anywhere. ... They didn’t want to sit around the hotel all day, so they decided to go to the Open Door Mission to celebrate and help serve meals to the homeless. Other people found out about their plan, and there was now a whole group, also stranded, who wanted to go as well. I was speechless. I talked to my supervisor and to the shuttle drivers and we did everything we could to get them there on Christmas morning. We treated them to a free gourmet Christmas dinner when they returned. —Becky Wells

» My husband had lost his job in Albuquerque a few months before. My parents flew us to (Nebraska) for Christmas. We were supposed to fly into Lincoln, but the flight was canceled. We were able to get a flight to Omaha instead, but because of the blizzard, we weren’t able to drive to Lincoln that night, so we got a room at a hotel instead. And after the stress of the previous months, it was like our little oasis for one night. We took the shuttle to the Old Market and ate at M’s Pub, then went back to the hotel and watched a comedy special on TV. It was the first time we’d relaxed in months, and just enjoyed spending time together. I know it sounds strange, but getting stranded in Omaha was one of the best experiences of that entire year. —Barb Bittner

» My boss was kind enough to let me leave work early so we could head to family in Kansas before the storm hit. When we returned our neighbor had cleared a path for us so we could get into our house. —Rachael Johannes Brickey

» After spending two hours Christmas afternoon trying to clear these 4-foot snowdrifts from the driveway, just as I finished the snowplow came by and dumped immovable ice boulders back in the driveway. My parents, lifelong Tennessee residents, were here for Christmas and had never seen drifts like that in their lives. —Matthew C. Sittel

» We were stuck in Omaha and did Christmas via Skype and leftovers. —Lacy Nadeau

» My daughters both attended out-of-state colleges. Both were flying into Omaha on Christmas Eve at about the same time. The one coming first from Atlanta landed, and we picked her up. The younger daughter was flying from Boston, and while it was only 30 minutes later, her flight circled the airport several times and the pilot decided he could not land the plane and diverted to Chicago. Finally on the 26th (we were able to) spend time together for Christmas!!! —Laurie Baack

—Compiled by Kassaundra Hartley

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