The snowstorm that shut down much of Nebraska this week landed its heaviest blows along Interstate 80, the transportation backbone and a main economic artery of the Cornhusker State.
It led to the shutdown of hundreds of miles of I-80 for more than a day, and it came within a few whiskers of setting an all-time snow record for the Grand Island area.
I-80 needed to be closed from Lincoln to North Platte on Tuesday because there was so much blowing snow that it was no longer safe for plows to be on the Interstate.
“It was whiteout conditions, low visibility. It was not safe for anyone to be in a vehicle being out doing anything,” said Jeni Lautenschlager, spokeswoman for Nebraska Department of Roads. “We try to plow as much as we can, when we can. But if we can’t see, we can’t plow.”
Wednesday, hundreds of semitrailer trucks were lined up along I-80 eastbound near North Platte, waiting for the road to reopen. By 11 a.m., so many eastbound vehicles had stopped in North Platte that the Interstate was closed farther west at the Ogallala exit. There, law enforcement and local businesses worked to provide parking for displaced traffic.
From the Holiday Inn Express right off the highway, front office manager Sarah Sybrant said she could see the exit ramp backed up with traffic. From there, she said, the State Patrol directed vehicles, mostly semis, into town wherever there was room. “We’ve had some run over our lawn.”
Sybrant said the hotel had about 20 trucks parked behind it. Dozens more semis were parked at nearby businesses.
But aside from vehicles filling the town, most said business still was manageable.
But to keep it that way, the patrol took more action. About noon, eastbound I-80 was closed at Sidney, more than 60 miles farther west, the agency reported. That closure meant about 347 miles of I-80 had been shut down between Sidney and Lincoln.
The Department of Roads reopened the Interstate at about 2 p.m. on Wednesday. At the Flying J Truck Stop in North Platte, there were so many semis lining up to get back on the road that troopers were out directing traffic.
The blizzard conditions that shut down the road lasted less than two hours in Omaha on Tuesday, but they raged for about 12 hours in central Nebraska, the National Weather Service reported.
For a storm to be classified as a blizzard, wind gusts must reach 35 mph or greater for at least three hours. In the Grand Island area, winds gusted between 40 mph and 50 mph for about 12 hours on Tuesday.
Most motorists heeded warnings to stay home or to stop early before traveling into the blizzard. Still, the Nebraska State Patrol had to assist many, pulling vehicles from ditches or leading motorists to an Interstate exit.
Deb Collins, spokeswoman for the patrol, said troopers “were busy for the duration of the storm, and they worked quite a few slideoffs.”
Dave Samuhel, meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., The World-Herald’s private weather consultant, said central Nebraska saw the highest snow totals from the blizzard as it moved across the Great Plains.
Another unusual characteristic of the storm was how much moisture it contained. In a 24-hour period, Grand Island received more than twice its monthly average for precipitation, Samuhel said.
According to weather service records, Tuesday’s snow in Grand Island contained 1.64 inches of water. In an average February, Grand Island receives .7 inches of moisture, Samuhel said.
“That’s pretty incredible,” he said.
Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Area Chamber of Commerce, described access to I-80 as the “lifeblood” of the city’s economy, feeding its agriculture and manufacturing sectors, among others. There was no way to easily calculate the economic cost of its closure, she said.
“We are a city with 18½ inches of snow, and the Interstate shuts down,” Johnson said. “You can imagine the drop of commerce that occurs in a community.”
Grand Island’s residential streets began getting cleared of its foot and a half of snow Wednesday evening, but by heavy equipment because traditional plows were getting stuck. Traffic on U.S. Highway 30 through the city was much lower than normal, Johnson said. Schools in Grand Island and Kearney were closed for a third day today.
World-Herald staff writers Paul Hammel and Chris Bowling and the World-Herald News Service contributed to this report.