Storm forces travelers to make Janesville a temporary home

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Thursday, February 7, 2008
— About a dozen people, who escaped Interstate 90/39 traffic jams, found food and shelter and the Salvation Army on Wednesday night.

Amy Zabrowski, who was traveling with her pet cat and two finches, knew she needed to get off the Interstate after seeing semis stopped on ramps and others stalled or pulled over onto the shoulder of the road.

Yet she felt it was necessary to travel.

“My Mom wanted me to be there. This wasn’t a question of weather,’’ Zabrowski said of her aging parents and ill father.

But it was.

The 40-year-old woman left Chicago at 3 p.m. At first she didn’t realize how huge traveling problems were. But by the time she got near the first Janesville exit, coming from Illinois, she was in the middle of traffic that kept stopping for long periods of time before moving slowly.

After an hour of stopping and starting, Zabrowski followed other traffic getting off at Exit 171, nearly the Holiday Inn.

“I didn’t know where I was going. I just needed to go to the bathroom and knew I needed to get off for my pets. My birds would have died in that cold weather,’’ she said.

After pulling into a gas station, she took time to call her parents and tell them about her dilemma. That’s when she overheard all the hotels were booked in Janesville and within a 20-mile radius. A short time later, she heard someone say the Salvation Army was opening for people to rest. So she got directions and drove there, arriving around midnight.

“They were amazing. I just felt like God was helping me all the time, said Zabrowski, who was given hot food and drinks plus a warm place for her and her pets to sleep.

Other lucky drivers found rest at The Comfort Inn in Newville, which booked up its 50 rooms, said Amy Hosier, front office manager.

People drifted into wherever they could find a spot in the parking lot.

“It looked like a war zone in the parking lot,” she said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to the way people are parked.”

The hotel had been waiting two hours at press time for a tow truck to remove a semi-trailer stuck in the back entrance to the parking lot, she said.

Booked hotels and a stuck semi-trailer foiled the plans of Teresa Freund, 31, of Eau Claire. She had been in Chicago for an immigration hearing and was on her way home when she and a friend got caught in stalled traffic 12 miles north of Janesville and just before the UW-Whitewater exit.

“Traffic was not moving, and there was no way to get around it,’’ she said.

But eventually they did and turned around and came back to Janesville only to find Perkins was about the only business open on Milton Avenue, Freund said.

“We had considered buying blankets but decided against it because the Kmart parking lot was full and a semi was stuck in the store’s main driveway.’’

So Freund called the Janesville Police Department, where officers told her about the Salvation Army being made into a temporary shelter.

Janesville firefighter Dan Benz didn’t make it that far. He took naps on and off and listened to music in his truck while he was stuck for about 4 1/2 hours on Interstate 90/39 near Stoughton.

“I would say it’s probably the worst I’ve ever driven in,” he said.

Benz left Wisconsin Dells for Janesville at about 10:30 p.m., after contacting the State Patrol, who said roads were open but slow moving.

Conditions deteriorated once he reached the Madison area, and traffic slowed before it came to a standstill around midnight, he said.

Visibility wasn’t an issue; it was the snow-covered, icy, slippery road, he said.

Rescuers on snowmobiles and 4-wheelers checked on each stranded vehicle to see if travelers needed anything, he said. Luckily Benz had filled his gas tank before leaving and was able to leave his truck running to stay warm.

When traffic started moving, he took a Stoughton exit, where he saw a command center set up at Coachman’s Golf Resort.

“Whoa, this is a little bigger than what I expected,” he recalled thinking when he saw the center of National Guard and other rescue workers.

Benz finally reached Janesville at 5:30 this morning and went in to work at 7 a.m.

The parking lot at Coachman’s Golf Resort on Highway A north of Edgerton was buzzing with activity around 7:30 Thursday morning. Snowmobiles were unloaded along the highway. An ambulance and rescue vehicle were idling nearby. A school bus was near the main building, ready to transport people.

A sea of semi-trailers overflowed the Highway 51 exit off Interstate 90/39 on the north side of Edgerton. Semis blocked a lane of Highway A. They idled in two rows on the northbound side of Highway 51. Cars slowly weaved in and out of the single open lanes on the two roads to squeeze their way through.

At 8:30 a.m. today, three friends—Lance Turner, 25, Samuel Latimore, 26, and Demetrius Hill, 26, all of Minnesota—who had stayed overnight at the Salvation Army were leaving to head back home to Minneapolis. They had been visiting relatives in Chicago when they also wanted to get out of Interstate traffic jams and found their way to the Salvation Army.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Latimore said, referring to the Salvation Army’s welcoming accommodations.

Capt. Carolyn Schuetz, who leads the Salvation Army with her husband Capt. Kirk, said the local emergency management office called and asked if they would open their building on Sutherland Avenue to motorists trying to find shelter from the snowstorm.

“So we came in,’’ Carolyn said.

So did some Salvation Army staffers. The Red Cross provided some cots, and city crews plowed their parking lot.

“We said sure,” Carolyn said. “It was an easy match for us and the right thing to do.’’

Last updated: 9:52 am Monday, December 17, 2012

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