Massive snowfall led to massive headaches for motorists and law enforcement as traffic ground to a halt on Interstate 90/39 overnight.
Hundreds were caught in the backup. Many were truck drivers who pulled over and were sleeping as their rigs blocked traffic this morning, said Lt. Russ Steeber of the Rock County Sheriff’s Department.
As many as 800 vehicles remained stranded early this morning, said Wisconsin National Guard Lt. Col. Tim Donovan.
Local authorities, the State Patrol, the DNR and the National Guard still were working to uncork the traffic jam north of Janesville this morning.
“What’s causing the biggest problems is you get a couple truckers blocking lanes. Everybody stops behind them then other truckers go to sleep and everybody behind them is backed up,’’ Steeber said.
“We’re waiting for the Department of Natural Resources to bring in additional snowmobiles. People who have been out all night need to be relieved,” Steeber said.
Steeber said the snowmobiles could get to trucks easier than sheriff’s department vehicles.
“They’ll tell them to get up and get going—to move,” he said.
Winds drifted roads shut Wednesday afternoon. The Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport reported peak winds of 31 mph.
Snowfall reports from the National Weather Service range from 9.5 inches in East Troy to 21 inches in Orfordville. But totals depend on where you are and whom you ask.
The National Weather Services reports Evansville got either 16 or 20 inches of snow, Orfordville got either 19.5 or 21 inches and Beloit got either 20 or 21 inches.
The numbers differ in Janesville, too.
The Wastewater Treatment Plant reported 15 inches, but the National Weather Service says the city got 16 inches of snow.
Totals in Walworth County, according to the National Weather Service, are:
-- La Grange: 11 inches
-- Whitewater: 11.5 inches
-- Pell Lake: 13 inches
Alpha Company of the state National Guard’s 132nd Brigade in Janesville was called up around 7 p.m. Wednesday and told to stand by, said Sgt. David Pronger. The unit was still waiting for orders this morning.
“It’s all being run by state headquarters. … If they need us, they’ll call us,” Pronger said.
Traffic began to move by 7:30 a.m., according to State Patrol Capt. Lee McMenamin.
“We’ve been going out knocking on cars, waking them up and getting people moving,” said Lori Getter, Wisconsin Emergency Management spokeswoman.
Responders hope to have the stranded vehicles moved by late morning, Getter said.
The big backup developed on northbound Interstate 90/39 south of Madison when semitrailer trucks lost traction and got stuck on a small hill.
It started at the height of the storm Wednesday afternoon, and the backup gradually grew to 19 miles.
No injuries were reported, only minor medical conditions that needed attention, Donovan said.
Lind also reported no injuries.
Other roads across southern Wisconsin were clogged with stalled cars, hindering plows.
A National Guard helicopter flew over Interstate 90/39 early this morning, giving law enforcement vital information about where the problems were, said Cmdr. Troy Knudson of the Rock County Sheriff’s Department.
The National Guard also deployed six to eight Humvees, which delivered food and water to stranded motorists and transported some with minor medical problems, Knudson said.
State troopers had to abandon their squads at the height of the storm and instead rode with DNR wardens in four-wheel-drive vehicles to aid motorists, said State Patrol Lt. J.D. Lind.
The DNR deployed snowmobiles for the same purpose, Knudson said.
Rock County deputies worked throughout the night, checking on every motorist who was reported stranded, Knudson said.
Knudson heard of one traveler suffering from a minor diabetic reaction that would have gotten serious had he not been transported.
Lind said troopers were called in from around the state to help.
Lind said the Interstate would remain treacherous through most of the day.
Janesville police reported six accidents, one with injury; 16 run-offs; and 58 stalled vehicles between 6:23 a.m. and 11:23 p.m. Wednesday.
Knudson said Interstate 90/39 traffic northbound was moving fairly well around 9 a.m., and southbound was beginning to move.
The snow ended Wednesday night, but city and county plow crews have a big job in front of them.
Temperatures just below freezing caused the snow to pack solid on the road, making them slippery and difficult to clear, said Larry Price, Walworth County public works superintendent.
“We’re really hoping for the sun to pop out. If we can get the sun out, that will help us a lot,” Price said. “Once we get a few holes burned through, that will help us pretty quickly.”
Some plow crews in Rock and Walworth counties worked through the night, clearing Interstate 90/39 and Interstate 43.
Janesville snowplow drivers were working today to clear residential streets and hoped to finish by mid-afternoon, said Mandy Bonneville, assistant operations director.
Drivers weren’t able to start residential streets until after midnight, she said, because of the rate and amount of snowfall Wednesday. Crews on the city’s 14 snowplow routes worked non-stop since 4 p.m. Tuesday just maintaining the main streets.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get to residential (streets sooner), because we couldn’t keep the main streets clear,” Bonneville said.
“During plowing efforts, the main streets in the city are our priority,” she said. “We hope that citizens can get out of their homes, onto their residential street, and as soon as they reach a main street, they can get anywhere in the city.”
Most county plow drivers were pulled off about 6 p.m., after the snow tapered off, to get much-needed sleep. They were back out at 3 a.m. in Rock County and about 4 a.m. in Walworth County, according to public works officials.
“We are presently trying to deal with all the drifting that’s on the roads to get the roads opened up,” said Hal Mayer, Rock County public works superintendent. “We have areas right now that are still hard to get through.”
Rock County crews will focus on the Interstate and state highways first, then move onto county and town roads, Mayer said.
“Hopefully by this afternoon, they will be all passable,” Mayer said. “By that I mean you will be able to drive down them. There is no way there will be bare pavement on a lot of them. Will continue through tomorrow and through the weekend widening them out.”
The worst areas were in western Rock County, where upwards of 20 inches fell near Orfordville, Mayer said.
Walworth County was able to keep up in most areas, Price said.
Two graders will be out today scraping hard-packed snow from roads.
“I can’t say they’ll all be bare, but they’ll look a lot better,” Price said. “By 3:30 p.m. today, things will be looking nice unless we have some problem areas.”
Conditions yesterday were about the worst possible for plowing.
High winds made whiteout conditions, which made plowing slow. The hard-packed snow also made for treacherous conditions, Mayer said.