Impassable roads shut down much of central and northeast Nebraska Tuesday into Wednesday, but crews were working to clear the snow that caused the problems.
On Wednesday, state roads officials temporarily closed a stretch of Interstate 80 from North Platte to Ogallala after earlier closing I-80 from Lincoln to North Platte. That meant 275 miles of the state's major east-west highway were off-limits to traffic.
The Interstate reopened at 2 p.m. Central time, officials said.
Heavy snow on Tuesday led to the closure of the Lincoln-to North Platte section.
The storm, which was extraordinary for the amount of moisture it contained, delivered its heaviest blow along I-80, and came within a few whiskers of setting an all-time snow record for central Nebraska. It dumped anywhere from 10 to 18 inches of snow along the Interstate. Whiteout conditions prevented crews from plowing during the blizzard, said Jeni Lautenschlager of the Roads Department.
“It was impossible for people to see, so it was not safe for anyone to be out on the road, including our folks,” she said.
Once winds eased, work resumed and crews worked through the night.
Grand Island, central Nebraska's I-80 community with the longest weather records, received 18.3 inches of snow from the two-day storm — and 17 inches of that fell on Tuesday. The 24-hour total fell just shy of the Grand Island's all-time snowiest day, March 20, 2006, when 17.8 inches fell.
Dave Samuhel, meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., The World-Herald's private weather consultant, said that general area of 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 that one, 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.
And while blizzard conditions lasted less than two hours in Omaha Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service meteorologist Van DeWald, they raged for about 12 hours in central Nebraska, said his colleague Shawn Rossi.
Wind gusts in blizzards must reach 35 mph or greater for at least three hours, and in the Grand Island area gusted between 40 mph and 50 mph for about 12 hours on Tuesday, Rossi said.
A number of snowbound vehicles were left along I-80, but they didn't impede the cleanup effort.
The closure of the section from North Platte to Ogallala was a safety issue, Lautenschlager said. Eastbound I-80 traffic was stacking up at North Platte, so officials moved the closure west to Ogallala to ease some of the pressure on North Platte.
"We’re trying to keep people from getting out on our roadways,’’ she said, while plowing work continues.
Motorists in Ogallala were stuck because other east-west highway routes also were also impassable, Lautenschlager said.
Law enforcement officers were directing traffic at both Interstate 80 exits to North Platte on Wednesday. Hundreds of semis were lined up along I-80 eastbound between exit 177 and 179. Trucks also were stacked up along an access road and along U.S. Highway 83, both north and south of I-80.
From Nebraska’s south-central border into Iowa and Minnesota, snowfall totals generally ranged between 10 and 20 inches.
The Omaha and Lincoln areas dodged the worst of the blizzard conditions that raged a few counties away from the state’s major population centers.
Officially, Omaha received 4.9 inches, and Lincoln reported 6.4 inches from the storm, said Van DeWald, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Lincoln broke its record for Tuesday’s date — 1.8 inches, set in 1972. Omaha’s total fell short of the record of 6.7 inches, set in 2004.
Schools across much of Nebraska and into Iowa, including in Omaha and Council Bluffs, canceled classes Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Omaha and Lincoln metro areas may have escaped the worst of the storm, but it still knocked out power and made driving difficult across Lincoln. The city was bouncing back Wednesday, though.
Lincoln Electric System communications manager Kelly Porter said that early Tuesday, 7,000 LES customers reported power outages. By 5 p.m. the same day, LES had whittled that number down to five.
Snow removal is ahead of schedule in the city, according to a report from the city's Public Works Snow Center.
The city lifted its parking ban on the even-numbered side of residential streets at 2 p.m. The parking ban for odd-numbered sides is still in effect until 6 p.m.
Parking on both sides of the street in any of Lincoln's eight snow-removal districts is prohibited from midnight to 7 a.m., Thursday to Saturday. Snow from around the city is plowed into windrows, which is loaded into trucks and hauled away.
Parking along snow emergency routes, including bus routes and major roads, is still prohibited.
Public Works maintenance manager Ty Barger said all residential streets should be clear by Thursday morning.
Farther west in Nebraska, several motorists stranded on U.S. Highway 34 east of Grand Island had to be rescued Tuesday afternoon. Several four-wheel drive vehicles were dispatched to bring them back, said Deb Collins, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Patrol.
A Nebraska National Guard unit out of Grand Island was sent out to help, but state troopers, with the help of Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office deputies, were able to transport the motorists before the unit arrived.
In Grand Island, plowing of residential hadn't started by Wednesday afternoon but was expected to begin that night.
Conditions were so bad in the Norfolk area that the Department of Roads pulled its plows out of service — two trucks had already gone off the roads.
The area hit by the worst of the blizzard was a long, narrow band stretching from the south-central part of the state along a northeasterly line through northeast Nebraska and on into northern Iowa and Minnesota.
“The drifts over here are terrible. We are just advising people to just stay inside,” said Deputy Nick Carlson of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office in northeast Nebraska on Tuesday. “The wind is making it pretty much a whiteout. ... Visibility is awful.”
The blizzard conditions extended across the Missouri River into Iowa.
“No one is really on the road,” said Dean Habhab, who manages a truck stop in Iowa. Habhab said Tuesday that he couldn’t see more than a half-mile outside his Sioux City location.
After Tuesday morning closures at airports in the region, most returned to service that afternoon and evening.
Eppley Airfield and Des Moines International Airport were back in operation, although several flights between Omaha and Minneapolis were canceled Wednesday morning.
Even where blizzard conditions didn’t occur, rural roads remained a mess from the wet, slushy storm.
Otoe County Roads Superintendent Jon Brinkman said Otoe County was lucky compared with Nebraska counties buried by 8 to 14 inches of snow. But his road crews had challenges of their own.
County roads softened by two days of thawing were muddy and sloppy prior to Tuesday’s storm. The snow, which ranged from an inch on the eastern side of the county to 4 inches closer to Lincoln, turned to slush by midmorning. On top of that, additional snow fell.
Powerful wind gusts created frequent whiteouts, said Marilyn Mueller, an employee at Tommy’s Restaurant in Grand Island, near Fonner Park.
“If you haven’t got a 4x4 (truck), you aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “We’ve even heard some guys with the blades on their pickups got stuck.”
The weather service received a report of an 8-foot snow drift in Eustis in the southwest part of Nebraska.
Wind gusts Tuesday topped 55 mph across parts of central and eastern Nebraska.
Brittney Lee, a front desk agent at the Holiday Inn near the west Kearney I-80 interchange, said the motel had plenty of vacancies thanks to the storm. She estimated that 60 of the 90 customers who had reserved rooms for Tuesday night called to cancel because of the weather. The blizzard did direct a few customers in, but most of them had checked in Monday night after the storm picked up steam.
It’s not surprising that snow totals were high in the heart of the storm, or that Omaha lucked out, said Brian Edwards, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., The World-Herald’s weather consultant.
“That’s typical with a storm like this,” he said. Meteorologists know that these types of storms will bring foot-plus snow totals because the storm systems travel northeasterly up the Central Plains from the southern Rockies. This puts them close enough to the Gulf of Mexico to tap into that moisture-rich air.
Edwards said one reason this kind of storm has a sharp geographic drop-off in snow totals is that it’s powerful enough to pull in desert air from the southwest. When that happens, that dry desert air dries out a portion of the storm, depleting its ability to generate snow.
When the worst of the storm hit the Omaha area, it arrived with a vengeance, bringing lightning and thunder and snow falling at rates of 1 inch to 2 inches per hour. Thunder snow with this type of storm is not unusual given the instability in the atmosphere.
World-Herald staff writers Paul Hammel, Jay Withrow, Chris Bowling, Erin Duffy, Joe Duggan and Andrew J. Nelson contributed to this report, which includes material from the World-Herald News Service and the Associated Press.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1102, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Omaha, 4.9 inches
Lincoln, 6.4 inches
Valley, 8.0 inches
Norfolk, 14.2 inches
Pierce, 18 inches
Columbus, 13 inches
Stanton, 15.8 inches
Dakota Dunes (South Sioux City), 14.5 inches
Sioux City, 12.5 inches
Vermillion, S.D., 13 inches
Sioux Falls, S.D., 5.7 inches
North Platte, 11.4 inches
Grand Island, 18.3 inches
Hastings, 15.7 inches
Kearney, 11 inches