When a blizzard shut down highways running through northwest Missouri on Christmas Eve, one small church found a new purpose — and the best way to celebrate Christmas Day.
Editor’s Note: A blizzard dumped two feet of snow onto northern Missouri on Christmas Eve. Sandy Zach, a Rock Port resident, tells us what happened next.
Thursday, Dec. 24th, turned treacherous early in the day with freezing rain and, later, snow. Our church had to cancel our candlelight Christmas Eve service that was scheduled for 5:30, disappointing many that we wouldn’t be able to go for this special occasion. We did not realize how soon our church would be needed and filled by many stranded folk.
The blizzard hit with warnings on all of the TV and radio stations, yet quite a few travelers missed the signs. We knew that there was a possibility of stranded motorists — many people were determined to make it home for Christmas. We’d thought about calling our pastor to let him know that we could take in some people if the need arose. We were remembering way back to Grandpa Adolph Zach and then Dad Zach — how they would leave their doors unlocked on stormy nights, in case some stranded traveler might need refuge from a bad storm.
Our ministerial alliance (Pastor Rodney is president and might have been the only pastor in town at the time) started getting calls around 10 p.m.Thursday night, and they continued through 4:15 Friday morning. (The Emergency Management Service leader had earlier set up a Red Cross trailer at the back of our church — just in case — with 100 cots and blankets.) We ended up with nearly 40 folk of all ages and nationalities in cots all over the church. We got a call from Pastor Rodney around 7 a.m. asking for help. He had sent out an email to several in the church family asking for help at 3:45 in the morning, but not many had answered.
The sanctuary and basement were warm, but the Sunday school room’s furnace would not work so it was cold there. Pastor Rodney also needed help feeding all of the stranded travelers. We discussed where various foods were in the church storeroom and the freezer. He also asked that we call several of the church’s neighbors from many denominations to ask if they could help share some of their food.
We told Pastor Rodney that as soon as we were dug out we would attempt to get to town and bring a Christmas ham that was thawed (due to our earlier/now cancelled plans for Christmas) plus juice, cereal, and anything else we could think of.
Dick got the 4-wheeler with the blade and made some passes in front of our garage. That wasn’t enough, so he got the tractor out to bust the drifts better and clear a path out of the garage and onto the driveway. He finally used his favorite handy snow shovel. I was packing food and drink in the house and trying to layer/layer/layer clothes for our trip to town, just in case we ended up in a snow drift.
We got the pickup out, loaded it and began busting drifts, arriving on Hwy. 136 which had just had a one-way path opened. We made it to Rock Port but nearly got stuck just short of the church. We parked the pickup in the laundromat parking lot and carried our load through nearly knee-deep drifts to the church.
The neighbors soon brought extra cereal, milk, bread and stew. Several of the stranded 40 were helping in some way. The father of six children (three foster and three biological) made coffee and then began mixing up an egg/milk mixture to scramble. An older African-American lady quickly opened a delicious ham (gift from RP Oil and made by R & L Meats) and sliced and warmed the meat in the oven. While the eggs were cooking, this same young father toasted bread. Coffee was made; hot chocolate was warming; juice was set out along with milk, cereal and plates and utensils. Quite a few of the 40 were waking up and soon were filling their plates or bowls. Throughout all of the meals, we often heard them say how this was some of the best tasting food they’d eaten.
All of the 40 were anxious about the roads, so we began calling the sheriff’s office every two hours to check on conditions. Travel was not allowed as all roads and interstates were considered impassable in Atchison County. We found out later that tickets and fines were being given for trying to travel on closed roads. All tow trucks had been pulled off the roads and would not be allowed back on until Saturday. A crew of guys came and did the sidewalks, helped immensely by Rick Shaw’s big snow blower. A young man (Myles) who is fluent in Spanish spoke with the four Hispanic visitors in our group. I know that Myles’s being there helped them feel relaxed.
As the word spread of our need at the church, more folk were stopping in with food or help. Clayton Amthor stopped by to help Rodney get up to the Methodist church’s food pantry because Rodney’s car was drifted in. They were able to bring in more food and paper items. Dr. Burke had stopped by before going to the hospital to give us access to the R& L (FC Foods) store for any food we might need and to offer his services.
A bit later we noticed that a young woman who was pregnant was sick and not doing well. We fixed hot tea and crackers for her, which helped some, but she began cramping and beginning some labor. She was only 15 weeks along and was traveling these dangerous roads to see her fiancé near Red Oak.
This story sounded familiar when I suddenly realized that my son Josh had told us the night before of helping out a young pregnant woman, trying to convince her not to drive farther north, especially to Red Oak. She insisted that she had to go and that she needed help to know how to get there. After again telling her it was not safe to drive, he relented, and gave her directions. He was concerned about her.
I asked the young woman (Leslie) if a Missouri highway patrolman had stopped her last night. She told me that he had, and though very kind and nice in telling her not to drive further and in showing his concern for her, he had given her written directions, which she showed me. I told her that that had been my son. Telling Josh about this later, he couldn’t believe that she had ended up in a snowdrift in Rock Port.
Back to the story. I called Dr. Burke at the hospital. A nurse answered and told me to have Leslie calm down and lie down. Dr. Burke made it back to Rock Port after stopping to pull several people out of the drifts. He came in the church, checked her out and took her to his office for a full exam. Dr. Burke had me call pharmacist Chris Roup, who met them at the drug store after the exam. Dr. Burke brought Leslie back to the church with the meds and gave me instructions on her care. She used my cell phone throughout the day and night to keep in constant contact with her fiancé.
Leslie was having such a bad time, and we hoped that this would help her keep calm. The pharmacist called and then stopped by later about the pills. Both Dr. Burke and the pharmacist asked if any of the other folk needed help or meds. No one did.
Later, we had a two-year-old girl begin to show signs of having an asthmatic attack. As we were talking to her father about the needed meds, the young mother of the six children told us that she was asthmatic; she had the necessary inhaler and meds that she would share.
We pulled games out of the youth group storage tub. (We also used the youth group’s stash of food and drink to feed the hungry crowd.) Lori made a pumpkin pie that was quickly devoured. The TV and VCR were rolled out and the group really enjoyed many of the tapes belong to the church or to some of the travelers. The little kids played some in the nursery and enjoyed the church activity bags. Sarah brought in an egg casserole that was quickly eaten, plus a cheese ball and crackers.
Many others brought supplies — Julie Burke (food and toaster); Lori Shaw (food, cookies, etc); Jim & Chris Lewis (hair dryer, cookies, foods, stew); Lisa (food, soups, canned goods); Wally & Tabor Riebesell (ham, potato salad, pickles, pop); Greg Groff (chips, pop); the Caseys (donuts, Advil, Motrin); Chad (help); Freborg guys (scooping, etc.); Rick (snow removal); Pankau girls (food, Christmas caroling, gifts, quilts); Don & Sharon (food stuff); Dan Athens (gifts and helping out). There were many more people that I know helped but tonight I can’t remember them all. The group of travelers was great and good about pitching in.
The two Hispanic men plus an Asian man were very good about pitching in and scooping walks as the snow kept coming, which required frequent clearing. The young father was so great at helping out in the kitchen or wherever there was need. The older African-American woman was super, cooking, cleaning, and just doing many of the things that needed doing. I know that I am forgetting many of the things that transpired today.
Yes, the stranded folk were definitely very appreciative of all we did for them. They wanted to thank us and thank us or do something for us. We told them that we were just glad that we could help and the best way that they could thank us would be to ‘pass on’ the help to others that they meet. Often their love of God and Christ’s birthday were talked about. Several mentioned that in the cities where they lived, this type of thing didn’t happen. They were amazed at our small town.
And they said that this Christmas Day would be one that they all would long remember and treasure. There were some that were determined to get on the road even though the state police requested that they not. One even got stuck outside of the church, calling on the cell phone to askthat we send some guys out to help dig them out (thanks Myles, Jordan and Scott).
I guess we all worried about them but it was their right and their choice. Most all of the stranded were good to visit and share and help There were just a few who preferred to stay off to themselves. Maybe they were from the city and did not trust folk. But all were friendly in their own way, and all were appreciative. Yup, we do live in an area that is quick to respond and everyone was glad to be able to help. Dick and I truly believe that we were blessed beyond measure today.
Thank you, Lord, for an unforgettable Christmas Day.