The Blizzard of ’12: We Made It

We turned west on Illinois 9. By the time we passed the prison, about two miles west of town, we were in trouble. In retrospect, we should have turned around there. We didn’t. Eternal optimism, I guess.

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The western Illinois blizzard of December 20, 2012, was not the end of the world for my family and me, but it could have been. If nothing else, this storm was a clear demonstration of nature’s raw power, and we got caught in it.

We had intended to go pick up our son at school west of Chicago on Wednesday, the 19th, but he was delayed. Coming on Thursday the 20th was going to put us in the middle of a snowstorm. 

What really scared me was that my reading of the forecast was different from the experts, who had posted only minimal warnings. By late Wednesday, I knew it was going to be bad. By Thursday morning, I wasn’t as sure, but then, just as we were about to leave home at about 9 a.m., sorry to say, I was right. 

The temperature had dropped from about 50 to 38 or 39 between 8:30 and 9 o’clock. The wind was roaring. In the pounding rain, we loaded the car with blankets, boots, heavy coats, snacks, and water. 

 When we left our home in Bushnell, IL, based on the radar and water vapor maps, we did not take our usual route north to Galesburg and northeast on U.S. 34. Instead, we headed straight east to Peoria to take advantage of the “dry slot,” a phenomenon you often see in low-pressure systems that divides the front’s warm and cold sectors. 

As we headed east, the temperature rose back toward 50. Along the way, my cell phone rang with an alert that Western Illinois University was closing because of the weather. This was only the beginning of the ordeal for some of our friends and co-workers.

Meanwhile, the dry slot allowed us to head north to the western Chicago suburbs, with some rain, some sunshine, and a spectacular rainbow that we tracked for miles along Interstate 39. 

We didn’t find the proverbial pot of gold, but the terrain allowed us to have a full 180-degree arch that we passed under it near La Salle, IL. (No time for pictures, though.) By the time we reached the west Chicago suburbs, hundreds of geese were crossing the sky, heading eastward, fleeing the oncoming storm. It was eerie.

As we headed home at about 2 o’clock, it was beginning to rain, but the temperature was still 48. We again saw hundreds of geese going to the east, even as I knew we were about to head into the mess. I’m normally high-strung on the inside, but I know I was visibly nervous and cranky with my wife and son. I really wasn’t sure how far we would get, but I figured we’d head as far south as we could. 

All I really wanted was to be home.

Although the weather had deteriorated, we still were able to take advantage of the remnants of the dry slot as we headed to Peoria, where I figured we’d have to stop. The winds were wicked, buffeting our little car. The snow was beginning to fly, but the interstate, which had been treated, was slushy. 

It was only when we got off at Illinois 17, heading toward Lacon, on the east side of the Illinois River, that conditions deteriorated rapidly. The temperature hit freezing. The snow was heavier. The winds were from the north and northwest, a constant 30 or 40 miles per hour, at least. The road was dangerously slippery, but passable. 

We had a lot of company.

Turning south on Illinois 29, along the Illinois River, we got the benefit of the low hills to the west that gave us partial shelter from the storm. The east side of the river, where we had been, was getting hammered. 

It was quieter here. The road down the river was partially snow-covered, but in pretty good shape, so we made good time through Chillicothe and on into the north side of Peoria, where we caught the outer belt. Given the hour, just after 4:30 p.m, the road was not jammed with traffic, and was relatively clear with slush and some slick spots.

It was getting dark when we exited to get to Illinois 116. Under normal circumstances, we would be a little over an hour from Bushnell. 

This is where the mess really hit. The road was covered with drifting snow and ice. Still, we were in a line of traffic, making slow progress westward across a brutal gale from the north that periodically caused whiteouts. If it hadn’t been for the taillights of the car ahead, we would have lost the road entirely several times, but we rolled on.

At Farmington, about 20 miles west of Peoria, we had a decision to make: Take Illinois 116 across the open farmland, or head south on Illinois 78, a bit hilly, partly protected by woods, and with a city of 9,000 or so that would normally be about 30 minutes from home. 

We went south. Along the way, we hit a couple of whiteouts and saw a few cars off the road, but we still were making progress at 20 or 30 miles per hour. When we reached Canton, the snow seemed to have slowed, and the newly revitalized downtown looked gorgeous. The relative quiet gave us a totally false sense of security.

We turned west on Illinois 9. By the time we passed the prison, about two miles west of town, we were in trouble. In retrospect, we should have turned around there. We didn’t. Eternal optimism, I guess.

We managed another mile or so in constant whiteout. In my 44 years of driving, I have been in tough storms, but nothing like this, especially with only three or four inches of snow. 

We were creeping along at less than 10 miles per hour when I lost the road completely and went off the right side. We tried to back up, but I now suspect the bottom of the car was hung up on the snow and the drop into the ditch. There wasn’t a house nearby, only the snow-shrouded lights of the prison a mile or so behind us.

At some level, I knew how bad it was outside, but the car was comfortable. When I got out to push the car, the temperature was 28. The road was solid ice. Snow slashed at my face in what must have been a constant 40 mph wind. I tried to push, as did my wife and son, but to no avail. Some passersby also helped, but that didn’t work either. 

No humor here: The weather outside was frightful. But, inside the car, I felt more humbled than scared. We had plenty of gas so we could ride it out. Fortunately, a police officer came by and called a tow truck. An hour or so later, we were headed back to Canton, out $75, but with no complaints. We ended up comfortably ensconced in the new and lovely Harvester Inn and had a late dinner and brunch — delicious home-style meals — at the American Grille. We finally returned home at about 3 p.m. on Friday the twenty-first.

In all of this, we had missed text messages from one of my wife’s friends telling us not to try to get home. Illinois 9 was already closed by drifting snow and abandoned cars by the time we were leaving Canton. As it turns out, we were better off than a lot of our friends and neighbors. One friend and his daughter spent twelve hours in their SUV. People who went out to search for them couldn’t find them, which raised a lot of fears.

Other neighbors were stuck in surrounding cities where they worked. One, on his way home, counted at least 50 cars in the ditch along a 20-mile stretch of U.S. 67 south of Monmouth, IL. 

A number of children and teachers were stranded at our schools in Bushnell, while at least one busload of children from another nearby school district had to be rescued from their bus. The police turned back buses leaving from the schools in Macomb. The driver of a stranded food service truck became an instant local legend when he opened his refrigerators to feed people taken in by the Prairie City Community Center. 

Small towns around the area opened their homes and community centers to people caught in the storm. This is the real and wonderful feel-good moment of hospitality, about helping and sharing with those in need, including friendly fellow motorists and police officers.

Then, there is the power of nature unleashed. Despite my caution, despite my misgivings, we got caught. I knew what we were in for. But we only got off with an inconvenience. My stomach still flipflops when I think of what could have happened.

A lot of us ducked the powerful blow of this storm in one way or another. We might not have been able to do it alone. We needed help from others, and that’s enough of a lesson for now. I’ll ponder the natural side of this as time passes.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

 

 

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