OWATONNA, MINN. – It will be fine, they told themselves. We’ll get an early start. It’s not snowing in Minneapolis. How bad could it be?
As it turned out, plenty bad.
Sprawled on cots, sipping coffee and munching on doughnuts, stranded travelers on Monday described how they became overnight guests at the National Guard armory here when a massive blizzard socked southern Minnesota on Sunday.
Many had gone to the Twin Cities from states along Interstate 35 to the south: Iowa, Missouri, even Texas. They came for family events: a concert, a birthday, a visit with grandchildren.
And waking on Sunday to shrieking winds but sunny skies, they decided they could beat the bad weather many knew was coming.
Nate and Jessica Faue of Des Moines celebrated a late Valentine’s Day with a trip to see the Minnesota Orchestra on Saturday night. They heard a storm was brewing, but the weather in Minneapolis the next morning seemed fine.
“I’m an optimist,” Jessica Faue said. “I was like, ‘It’ll blow over.’ ”
The howling storm, with sideways snow driven by wind gusts up to 50 mph, hit them on I-35 between Northfield and Faribault.
“We couldn’t see 10 feet,” Nate Faue said. “We were driving 5 mph on the freeway with our blinkers on, and there was a line of cars behind us.”
They crept white-knuckled to the Owatonna exit, where authorities had closed the highway and put up roadblocks. Finding that all the city’s hotel rooms were booked, they were directed to the armory.
Marilyn Tucker of Dexter, Minn., had attended Elton John’s farewell tour performance at the Target Center with her niece and was heading back home.
“I knew there was gonna be bad weather on Sunday, so I thought I would leave early,” she said, lying on a cot in the armory and reading a mystery novel. “When I left Minneapolis, it was doable. Then I saw people in the ditch and the visibility was worse.”
Getting off the highway at Owatonna, Tucker went into the Walmart, where people told her, “You’re not going anywhere.”
More than 180 people crowded the armory, with another 60 taking shelter in a Lutheran church. The American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Minnesota National Guard and local government agencies jumped into action to tend to the stranded travelers.
They provided food, bedding and baby supplies while soothing frazzled nerves. It was the biggest shelter job any of them had ever taken on.
“People were coming in around the clock,” said Iris Johnson, a Red Cross official. “The most we have ever had stay here before is 30 people. We used every cot and blanket — we just about ran out.”
The crowd was friendly and well-behaved, travelers said, as people bonded over their shared experience.
Suszi Bewaji of Waseca was stranded while on her way to a breakfast date with her new boyfriend. She ran into a ditch, but a passing motorist helped her out. She went in the ditch again near a highway exit and a passing sheriff’s deputy spotted her.
“It was very nice,” she said of her overnight stay. “Everybody’s been helping everybody, telling their stories. It’s been really an interesting experience.”
One fussy baby wouldn’t calm down, Bewaji said, and people took turns holding it so the parents could get some sleep.
Kristina Boyce of Mankato got a call for help Saturday night. Her daughter’s car had broken down near Owatonna on the way from a professional event in Rochester. The car was dead, the snow was piling up and she couldn’t turn on the heater.
Boyce jumped in her van and headed east for the 45-mile drive. At top speed, she was going 20 mph.
“It was a flippin’ disaster,” she said, ending when she hit a huge snowdrift a few miles from Owatonna and spun into the median. She called 911 and state troopers rescued both her and her daughter, Breanna.
That mother-daughter mishap was the best thing that could have happened to Khadar Omar, a former Minneapolis resident who now lives in Dallas. Omar got stuck in a snowdrift on his return trip to Texas and wound up at the armory. He was worried because he’s deaf and wasn’t sure he’d be able to communicate.
But it turned out that he chose just the right place to be stranded. That professional event Breanna Boyce was returning from? She was the sign language interpreter.