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Blackouts follow whiteouts, and worst is yet to come

Staff writer

Heavy, wet snow followed by blustery winds caused both whiteouts and blackouts Monday night and Tuesday morning throughout the county as the area braced for yet more snow and temperatures approaching 10 below this weekend.

Slushy then snow-packed roads sent cars sliding into ditches and tree limbs collapsing and burning on power lines. Countless vehicles became stuck in drifts as drivers ignored warnings not to travel.

Schools and most government offices were closed Tuesday, and power failures were common throughout the county, with some rural customers out of power for 5½ hours or longer.

Power to most of Marion was cut by city workers for more than half an hour at 11:28 p.m. Monday after a rash of reports of arcing power lines and trees catching fire.

Fires were reported near the VFW post on W. Santa Fe St. and just south of Main St. in the 100 blocks of S. Cedar St. and S. Freeborn St. A power line also fell across Main and Coble Sts.

Power in Marion failed two additional times, for two minutes or less, at 12:48 a.m. and 1:15 a.m. It flickered significantly enough to set off backup power supplies at least six more times afterward. Additional blackouts occurred during the day as crews attempted to repair damaged lines.

Hillsboro also reported a tree fire in the 200 block of S. Kennedy St. and then a strange blue glow in the sky, followed by rhythmic bright yellow flashes from spectacular electrical arcing at or near a new Evergy substation and Container Services on Jade Rd. east of town.

Telephone and cable TV lines were reported down in Hillsboro, Marion, and most other communities in the county. Power reportedly failed off and on in Hillsboro and in Tampa and Lincolnville along with rural areas as a depleted corps of law enforcement officers and tow truck operators kept busy with stranded motorists most of the evening.

The National Weather Service warned at 10:25 a.m. and re-emphasized at 7:53 p.m. that travel would be difficult if not impossible, but some drivers still braved the storm nonetheless.

Deputies and other emergency responders reported near whiteout conditions Monday night between Marion and Hillsboro, and tow trucks and officers struggled to make their way to stranded motorists. At times, responders had to follow behind Kansas Department of Transportation snowplows to get through.

Puffy snowflakes Monday morning gave way to melting throughout the day before snow returned with a vengeance in the evening.

A few slide-offs were reported during the initial snowfall, but the bulk of problems occurred in the evening.

Undersheriff Larry Starkey, filling in on patrol for the depleted sheriff’s office, came on duty at 6 a.m. Monday, was still handling calls until 7:10 p.m., then came back on duty at 11:06 p.m., patrolling until sunrise. What appeared to be the only other deputy on evening and overnight patrol, Josh Meliza, riding with a trainee, became inundated with calls about stuck vehicles.

Meliza reported at 7 p.m. that the Cottonwood River bridge on K-256 west of Marion was iced over and that Indigo Rd. was covered with snow and slush, limiting speed to 20 mph.

His first call was at 7:47 p.m. for a car in a ditch on Indigo Rd. south of 140th Rd.

At 8:23 p.m., after struggling to reach the accident, he reported that US-56 between Marion and Hillsboro was extremely slick and experiencing whiteouts.

Then, at 8:28 p.m., a Marion firefighter reported a car 20 feet down in a ditch along US-77 between 170th and 180th Rds.

Redirected to that accident, Meliza almost immediately was told about yet another accident on the other side of the county — a car blocking US-56 near Alamo Rd.

Because that car was blocking the road, it received priority. Meliza turned around, and a tow truck was dispatched from Hillsboro. When the truck arrived, however, the vehicle apparently had been removed. The tow operator then had difficulty turning around to go to the accident east of Marion.

Meanwhile, at 9:08 p.m., Hillsboro officer David Funk reported that two additional cars had slid into ditches along Indigo Rd. near US-56.

Fire calls began soon afterward, the first at 9:57 p.m.

As firefighters and electric crews responded to multiple reports of downed lines and tree fires, additional slide-offs were reported on US-56 near Pawnee Rd.

Meliza, who earlier had told dispatchers that Sheriff Jeff Soyez had volunteered to come on duty if needed, was asked by dispatchers whether they should call Soyez.

“I already tried,” Meliza said. “He’s unavailable for the night.”

Starkey came back on duty instead.

Soon afterward, a U-Haul truck was reported in a ditch on K-150 just east of the Marion roundabout and an SUV was reported to be stuck, possibly on the roadway, on US-56 at Limestone Rd.

Meanwhile, the driver from the stuck vehicle at US-56 near Alamo Rd. called back to say he had not left the scene but rather that he was stuck on Alamo south of US-56 and still needed help.

After Starkey couldn’t find the vehicle at Limestone, dispatchers learned that someone already had pulled her out.

It wasn’t the only accident officers couldn’t find. Peabody officer Medina Sulejmani was dispatched to an accident at US-50 and Nighthawk Rd. but found no evidence of it.

“This road is horrid,” Meliza said at one point while crisscrossing the county in search of stranded motorists.

The Auto House tow truck driver, sent back to the Alamo Rd. wreck, asked whether Starkey could check whether Alamo was “all mud.” Starkey said he was willing “if I get there before daybreak.”

The tow truck driver responded: “I know the feeling.”

At 1:36 a.m., dispatchers learned that a car and two semis were stuck on K-15 at 180th and 230th Rds. A third semi then became stuck behind one of the stuck semis.

Starkey suggested that the semi driver call a tow truck.

“I did offer that option,” a dispatcher replied. “He advised he wasn’t going to pay $900 to get them moved out of the roadway.”

“So, what’s he want us to do?” Starkey asked.

“He wanted to know when the plow truck was going to come through,” the dispatcher replied. “I advised him that KDOT only has three people out working and that they’re focusing on the main highways. He advised that’s what he was trying to get to.”

Starkey went to where the truck was stuck but could not raise the driver, who earlier had said he was going to go to sleep in the semi’s cab.

At 2:12 a.m., dispatchers told Starkey that KDOT had said it did not have enough trucks to cover K-15. A few minutes later, however, KDOT called dispatchers back and said it would send one truck onto K-15 even though it was worried that the truck might become stuck.

As winds began picking up at 3:01 a.m., Lincolnville firefighters were paged out for a power line down at 6th and Topeka Sts. It reportedly sparked then blacked out the town and the surrounding region as far south as Antelope.

At 4:22 a.m., Starkey reported that he considered all county roads impassable but that US-56, US-77, and US-50 were passable.

At 4:42 a.m., a Marion ambulance put that to the test when it was dispatched to a house in Canada for a 46-year-old asthma sufferer having trouble breathing because she could not find her asthma inhaler during a blackout.

After the ambulance arrived, the woman declined to be taken to a hospital, but the ambulance became stuck at her residence.

KDOT and county road and bridge employees either could not be reached or could not help, but the Auto House tow truck operator said he could come. He freed the ambulance, at 6:21 a.m.

Although K-15 technically had been closed for hours, another car became stuck at 4:50 a.m. in the middle of the road just south of 80th Rd. Yet another was reported at 8:04 a.m. to be stuck in the middle of the road south of 110th Rd.

The US-56/77/K-15 roundabout northeast of Marion became impassable at 7:19 a.m. after one vehicle became stuck within the traffic circle and three other vehicles, including the squad car of deputy Bruce Burke, who had just come on duty, become caught behind it, unable to pass or turn around.

Stuck vehicles also were reported at 3rd and Ash Sts. in Hillsboro and at US-56 and Old Mill Rd. Waiting time for wreckers was estimated to exceed four hours. Absolute Towing’s wrecker reportedly was stuck, apparently at Wendy’s in Hillsboro, and Auto House eventually reported that it was unable to respond to anything east of Lehigh.

Reports of slide-offs and stuck vehicles continued as more drivers ventured out during the day. At 10:38 a.m., three or four trucks were reported in a ditch just east of Marion on K-256 near Upland Rd.

Daylight also revealed that heavy snow and winds had torn down multiple tree limbs throughout the county. Highways and snow routes in cities were snow-packed but passable. Side streets still had not been plowed, and only a few motorists attempted to traverse them.

Last modified Jan. 10, 2024

 

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