County officials frustrated by lack of information during storm

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Stacy Vogel
Friday, February 22, 2008
— Shelley Schmidt didn’t know what to tell the hundreds of callers asking her what they should do.

They’d been sitting in traffic one hour, two hours, three hours. They were hungry, and frustrated, and tired.

Schmidt and her co-workers at the Rock County Communications Center had no idea when the traffic would clear up or how the drivers could get food and water.

“We didn’t really have any information to tell them besides, ‘Stay in your car. State Patrol’s aware there is standstill traffic,’” she said.

Rock County officials agreed that lack of communication with state officials was one, if not the worst, of the problems they experienced Feb. 6, the date of one of the most severe snowstorms in south central Wisconsin history.

The Rock County Sheriff’s Department wasn’t even aware of the thousands of vehicles stalled on Interstate 90/39 between Janesville and Madison until around 5 p.m., hours after the backup started, said Sheriff Bob Spoden.

“Better communication on the forefront, I think, would have helped us to get people to not even get on the Interstate to begin with,” Schmidt said.

Once the drivers started calling, there wasn’t much Schmidt could do for them. Even if the vehicles could get off the Interstate, the county roads weren’t any better, and Rock County hotels quickly filled.

Miscommunication between state and local agencies even foiled a plan to provide relief to people stuck in their cars for hours at a time.

According to a state report released Thursday, the Janesville Police Department organized a group of civilian snowmobilers Feb. 6 who were willing to check on drivers and offer them food and water.

But Lt. Lauri Steeber, the incident commander at the Wisconsin State Patrol, told the department to keep the snowmobilers off the Interstate.

“A State Patrol lieutenant says she ‘wanted no civilian vehicles on the Interstate and that the State Patrol had it under control,’” the report states. “Janesville Police Department tells the snowmobilers—organized with great effort—to stand down.”

Spoden thinks the State Patrol made a mistake telling the snowmobilers to stand down, he said.

“If you look at the magnitude we were dealing with, we were reaching a point where any help we could get would be helpful,” he said.

So when the sheriff’s department discovered another group of snowmobilers aiding drivers around the Highway 59 exit near Edgerton, it didn’t stop them.

In fact, Spoden said he was proud of the response that night by Rock County deputies and residents.

“It kind of reinforces that basic Midwest value we have in Wisconsin,” he said. “When our neighbors are in trouble, we help them out.”

Judging by Spoden’s comments in the report, he was not so proud of the state’s response.

“Certainly, it would have been beneficial to have a more coordinated response effort and to have mechanisms in place to readily recognize the gravity of the situation as to not underestimate the magnitude of this snowstorm-related event,” he wrote.

“This more coordinated effort would have given all parties involved a better understanding as to the resources available to deal with the situation.”

Last updated: 4:01 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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