As much of the Twin Ports and surrounding communities began to hunker down Nov. 30 for an anticipated post-Thanksgiving blizzard, Jillian Zezulka of Cotton was racing the storm to get her sick 11-month-old son to the hospital in Duluth.
Around noon on Saturday, Zezulka's son Owen was admitted to the St. Luke's pediatric unit after being diagnosed with pneumonia and an ear infection. His dad, Dan Zezulka, had been on the job since 5 a.m. as a snowplow operator for St. Louis County. Learning the diagnosis, Dan joined his wife and child.
The Zezulkas, along with every Northlander who experienced last weekend's storm, have stories to share about how they experienced the storm that dropped nearly 2 feet of snow.
As a wrap-up to the week's storm coverage, the News Tribune brings together some of those stories that reflect on moments of rescue, gratitude, exhaustion and the itching desire for life to return to normal.
The buildup to the storm
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Duluth on Wednesday, Nov. 27 were still monitoring the pre-Thanksgiving winter storm that dropped 8.5 inches of snow in Duluth and up to a foot on the South Shore of Wisconsin when they turned their attention to the next system.
At first, it was unclear what the post-Thanksgiving storm would bring, but as different models began showing similar outcomes, meteorologists knew it could be a record setter.
“We were looking at these snowfall amounts and we were just like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Justin Schultz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Duluth, said. “There was very heavy snow in a relatively short amount of time.”
The weather service sent out its forecast: up to 16-22 inches of snow in the Twin Ports and along the North Shore and wind speeds of 40 mph off Lake Superior. Winds that could cause 10- to 18-foot waves and lakeshore flooding were expected.
It seemed extreme to some, but meteorologists were confident.
When the weather service issued its blizzard warning Saturday morning, conditions were otherwise OK and the storm was still hours away.
“We wanted to put it out just so people could hunker down,” Steve Gohde, the observation program leader at the National Weather Service in Duluth, said.
As Saturday progressed, the extreme winter weather had yet to materialize, and some people lost faith in the weather service’s forecast.
“Seems to be another under performer,” one person Tweeted to the weather service early Saturday afternoon.
Then it hit.
By 3 p.m., heavy snow was falling and strong winds were blowing. It didn’t let up until noon the next day.
Every six hours during the storm, Gohde went outside the weather service office off U.S. Highway 53 near the Duluth International Airport to measure snow.
Gohde measured 6 inches of snow at 6 p.m., 14.5 inches at midnight, 19.3 inches at 6 a.m. and 21.7 inches at noon.
And it was wet.
“When I was going out to observe, it was like I was just getting pasted with very wet snow. It was coating everything,” Gohde said.
When the snow started the afternoon of Nov. 30, it spit first and then came fast, more than an inch an hour until late morning the next day. Captain Rick Slatten of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad left his house at 4 p.m. Nov. 30 to join a task force of three vehicles and five people. Other teams were also deployed.
“In 40 years this is the worst blizzard I’ve seen,” he said. “We stuck together because we would get stuck, too, and had to pull each other out.”
They ferried a dispatcher stranded at home to work. Later in the day, they got to one woman who’d been in her vehicle for four hours.
“Her fuel was down to a quarter tank,” he said. “If her gas runs out, she’s in survival mode.”
Working the Interstate 35 and Midway Road corridors, they conducted 15 rescues by the time they stopped at 3 a.m. Dec. 1.
“Some folks were stuck in the middle of the road,” Slatten said, describing whiteout conditions and travel at no more than 15 mph. “It was very difficult to see forward; you were navigating the vehicle by looking at the ditches.”
They rescued one family of four and another family of six — one father so elated he left the crew with a tow strap and extra shovel. They rescued one vehicle twice and another three times.
Slatten described seeing commercial wreckers deployed everywhere, too. And the Minnesota State Patrol issued data to the News Tribune on Friday that showed between Nov. 30 and Monday, it responded to 18 property damage crashes, three crashes with minor injuries and 135 vehicles off the road or spun out.
One person the rescue squad encountered greeted them with a salty disposition. Of the rest, “everybody else was overwhelmingly grateful,” Slatten said. “A lot of people were surprised the plows were as bad as they were, but this was heavy snow. It slowed them down. With this amount of snow and density, it just took way more time.”
Slatten and company had wound down by the time Steve Slivinski, head groomer for the Amsoil Championship Snocross circuit, woke at 4:30 a.m. Dec. 1 at the AmericInn in Proctor to find his pickup buried under drifts. He and his partner got a ride to the overpass and walked into Spirit Mountain from there.
“It was snow up to your butt, and it was a workout,” Slivinski said from his home in Pontiac, Mich. “No snowshoes, just boots and coats and away we went. We had the trees to block the wind, so it wasn’t that bad.”
They got to their groomers and plowed out the snowmobile racers’ trailers in the pits. Then they started on the roads that lead to the ski resort, even helping an ambulance out on a medical call get unstuck. Despite it all, the day’s racing was canceled.
“It sucked,” Slivinski said. “Some of the racers wanted to race, some didn’t. It was more for the safety of riders and spectators.”
While a blanket of white continued to swallow up the outside world, the Zezulkas were tucking in for the night on the pediatrics floor at St. Luke's. Some nurses were catching sleep in nearby rooms, others worked extra hours as relief wasn't available.
“They weren’t preoccupied with getting home or what was going on outside,” Jillian Zezulka said. “They were just really in tune with the care that he needed.”
For some, the dig-out from the weekend storm began well before flakes started to fall. One local commercial plowing company told the News Tribune that its plows were out ahead of time to make room for all of the snow the second storm was expected to dump.
The company, which contracts its snow removal services with a local hospital, only agreed to speak on the record anonymously, as did other commercial plowing services the News Tribune requested interviews with. The News Tribune decided to honor the requests for anonymity in this instance in order to share their perspectives with the public.
After sending out snow removal crews around 5 p.m. Saturday, the company that contracts with a local hospital pulled its crews in around 1 a.m. Sunday due to poor visibility, a co-owner said. Everybody was back out again all day Sunday clearing lots for its clients, including hospital property, which is the company’s first priority.
“The challenge was to get people breaks to try and catch some sleep. We had one guy who I paid to take a rest,” the co-owner said. “His time card had 28 hours straight. He lived out in the country and the county didn't have any roads plowed so he couldn't get home. He said, ‘Well I might as well just keep on working.’”
People either slept in their trucks or in the waiting area of the company’s office, the co-owner said. None of his company’s employees were able to to travel out of town for the holiday, everybody had to stay close in anticipation of the big dig-out.
“We hope to be back to normal in about a week or so,” the co-owner said Friday. “We've got tons of calls from people all over town to say, “Gee, can you come haul my snow away?’ We have to tell them if it doesn't snow we may be able to get to you in four to six weeks. It's kind of an unusual situation … with snow like this it gets to the point where a pickup with a plow can't handle it.”
For commercial plowing companies with smaller crews, hours can be even more grueling than working 28 hours straight. A business owner with a local plowing company said he worked 42 hours without a break, and then got nearly 3 hours of sleep before heading back out again for another 24 hours.
“It was brutal. If I could sleep I would pull into some corner of some dark area and just let the truck sit idle for an hour and sleep for 20 minutes,” the business owner said. “And that wasn’t unusual, unless you had a really organized team.”
It wasn't uncommon for commercial plow companies to stay out, the business owner said. Oftentimes, he was working with frozen windshield wipers and windows rolled down just to stay alert.
While snow plow drivers were still only beginning their week's work, 11-month-old Owen Zezulka was discharged from St. Luke's around 5 p.m. Sunday. Before heading home, the Zezulkas stopped at the nearby Walgreens for a prescription.
Jillian Zezulka, herself a pharmacist, was impressed by the dedication of the two-person staff to serve their customers as efficiently as possible. The roads in Duluth were treacherous, but progressively better as the Zezulkas neared their home in Cotton, where it snowed “only” 8 inches.
It took an hour and 20 minutes to get home, compared to the usual 45 minutes.
Aftermath of the storm
In the aftermath of the blizzard, work only increased for local tow companies. Many people parked their cars on the road or abandoned them somewhere during the storm. Once plows began making their way through city roads, many cars were buried under mounds of snow and needed assistance from a tow truck.
Shane Madrinich, owner of Get Hooked Towing in Duluth, said Thursday his company was starting to get its first break from receiving nonstop calls from people needing a tow. Madrinich said they stopped service Saturday night because the roads were too icy to operate on and didn’t resume service until Monday morning, when a city plow finally got to their area to allow them to retrieve their trucks.
“We’ve had to turn a few people down because the cars were just so buried,” Madrinich said. “One car was so encapsulated in snow it was up to the roof. People have to at least attempt to dig their car out before we’ll tow them because we don’t want to damage the vehicle.”
Law enforcement has also been calling for help a lot, Madrinich said. He said about 50% of the calls they’ve received from law enforcement have been for abandoned cars blocking the roads making it impossible for plows to clear snow.
“Most of those calls have been for cars in the Central and East Hillside neighborhoods,” Madrinich said.
Madrinich said if a car was stuck on an unplowed street his crews did not have the capability to get to them and couldn’t provide service to that customer. In Superior, Mark Androsky, owner of Stadium Towing, was at least willing to try, as his company has a plow truck in its fleet of vehicles.
“We have saved the plow truck to follow the tow trucks around because we are getting stuck. I've lost track of how many times I've been stuck,” Androsky said. “So that was huge to have a plow truck with the tow truck. So we've been going around the city in tandem.”
Androsky said he and his son have been driving around Superior with the tow truck and plow truck almost nonstop since Saturday afternoon when the snow started. He said they would always try to get to a car on an unplowed street but sometimes it just wasn’t possible.
“It all just depended on how high the snow drifts were,” Androsky said.
As of Thursday, Androsky said he was still getting phone call after phone call after phone call. He said he’s received over 600 calls from customers.
“People are calling me and I can only answer the phone once every six calls, so I service that person,” Androsky said. “It's impossible to answer every call. My voicemail is full because there is just no way to keep up with the demand. It's impossible.”
Getting back to normal
After having nine days off, Myers-Wilkins and Lowell elementary schools finally resumed classes on Thursday. The Duluth school district closed Wednesday, Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, because of the first snowstorm. School was scheduled to be closed Nov. 28-29 for Thanksgiving break with classes expected to resume Dec. 2. But that didn’t happen.
Duluth school district superintendent Bill Gronseth had to close school Dec. 2 and 3 due to unplowed roads in the city. Every school in the district except Myers-Wilkins and Lowell resumed classes Wednesday, Dec. 4.
The city of Duluth failed to plow the East and Central Hillside neighborhood roads before Wednesday morning, leading to Gronseth’s decision to close Myers-Wilkins, and subsequently Lowell, which has an exchange program with Myers-Wilkins.
When finally back in school on Thursday, Myers-Wilkins principal Amy Worden said the students were thrilled to be back.
“As we asked about their weekend, they shared that they were bored and wished they had school,” Worden said in an email to the News Tribune. “Children appreciate routine and predictability. School provides that for them.”
Worden said some of the Myers-Wilkins families told her that the break was just too much for their children.
“The snow complicated available play spaces and the children felt very homebound,” Worden said.
Students weren’t the only ones antsy to get back to school, Worden said. So were the teachers. Worden said teachers were asking to go into school and work each of the snow days, but the road to the school wasn’t plowed until late Wednesday morning, preventing them from reaching the building, to their dismay.
“There is great urgency in our teaching staff to assure that students don’t miss out on learning opportunities,” Worden said.
As for the Zezulka family, baby Owen was just fine by the end of the week.
“He's just back to being the normal, happy, bouncing, energized, crazy little infant that he used to be,” Jillian Zezulka said.