One-two punch of snow, cold puts the bite back in winter

Storm, arctic temperatures close schools, businesses, government offices this week

Area residents have spent this week fighting winter’s wrath as a fierce snowstorm and whipping winds dropped around a foot of snow Sunday night and Monday before bitterly cold temperatures took over. Gary Streff (above) looked like the abominable snowman as he cleared a driveway in Fredonia.
Ozaukee Press staff

A snowstorm and bitter cold, the likes of which haven’t been seen in the area for years, pummelled Ozaukee County this week, closing schools and businesses — even government offices — and pushing plow drivers to work 18-hour shifts to keep roads open.

Monday’s storm, which dropped a foot or more of snow on much of the county, was just the first of a one-two winter punch. An arctic air mass that settled over Wisconsin in the wake of the storm sent temperatures plummeting to -20 and wind chills to as low as -45 Tuesday night. The next day’s predicted high temperature of -10 with wind chills as low as -50 prompted the U.S. Postal Service to suspend mail delivery in Port Washington and the surrounding areas on Wednesday and forced school districts to cancel classes for a third time in seven days, and windchill warnings that extended into Thursday left a return to school in doubt.

Ozaukee County government offices were closed Monday because of snow and Wednesday and Thursday because of the cold.

In the Port Washington-Saukville School District, the first spate of severe winter weather in years came at the end of the first semester and in the middle of exam week at its high school. Because of a snow day on Wednesday, Jan. 23, exams were extended to Monday, Jan. 28, when classes were again cancelled. Tuesday provided a break in the weather that allowed students to return to classes and finish exams before schools were closed again Wednesday.

“This has been a challenging week,” Supt. Michael Weber said Tuesday. “But today was very important because we were finally able to end the first semester and start the second semester.”

The last time the district cancelled classes because of snow was at least six years ago, Weber said. Cold temperatures forced the district to close school three years ago.

Weber said that only once in his 19-year tenure did the district exceed the three inclement weather days it builds into its calendar.

With a lot of winter yet to go and the district’s three inclement weather days already used, administrators are now calculating the exact number of instructional hours in the calendar. Although the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction used to measure minimum annual instruction time in days, it now does so in hours, so if classes are cancelled again, the district doesn’t necessarily have to make up a full day of classes.

If additional cancellations are needed, the district has several options, Weber said, including holding classes on Friday, March 1, a scheduled day off for students and staff members. The district could also extend the school day by a number of minutes to make up the time, he said.

The nuclear option, Weber said, would be to extend the school year, which is scheduled to end on Friday, June 7. That’s a particularly unattractive option because it would force students to return to classes after graduation on Sunday, June 9.

“That is the last resort, something we definitely don’t want to do,” Weber said.

While students waited out the worst of winter at home, plow truck drivers who worked around the clock from late Sunday through Monday didn’t get much of a break. They were back at it Tuesday battling blowing and drifting snow.

Most communities in the county received about a foot of snow during a storm that started late Sunday and didn’t let up in the hardest-hit Port Washington area until late afternoon Monday. According to the National Weather Service, which noted snow totals were hard to determine because of drifting, Port Washington received 13.5 inches of snow, but other estimates were several inches higher.

“When we have a storm like this, it’s all hands on deck,” Ozaukee County Public Works Director and Highway Commissioner Jon Edgren said. 

Some plow drivers, he said, were on the road for 16 to 18 hours, the maximum allowed by law, clearing the nearly 350 miles of county roads, highways and a stretch of I-43.

And it’s not over, Edgren said Tuesday.

“We’re still in the middle of it,” he said. “The problem is with temperatures dropping and winds really kicking up, especially in rural areas, we have to keep up with the drifting.”

In the City of Port Washington, snow fell at the rate of one inch an hour during the height of the storm, Street Commissioner J.D. Hoile said. Each of the city’s 15 plowing routes takes three to four hours to complete, so by the time crews made a second sweep, there were at least three inches of fresh snow on the ground, he said.

City crews are now gearing up to remove snow from downtown and cul-de-sacs, a process Hoile said would begin on Thursday or Friday. 

“We’re running out of room,” Hoile said, referring to space along streets to pile snow.

Officials are now bracing for a predicted warm-up on Sunday and Monday when temperatures are expected to be in the 40s — more than 50 degrees warmer than the high on Wednesday. The combination of snow-melting temperatures, possible rain and frozen ground are fueling flooding concerns.

If rain remains in the forecast, city crews will work to clear snow from storm sewers, Hoile said.

“It’s just unbelievable. It’s crazy,” he said of the swing in temperatures.

County workers may also have to take steps to avoid flooding.

“We currently have snow and ice over catch basins and ditches,” Edgren said. “Even though the air temperature may be a little warmer, the ground will still be frozen. Water will have no place to go. We may have to get out the backhoes and clear ditches if we expect a significant amount of rain.”

Port Washington authorities are uncertain if weather played a role in a malfunctioning Union Pacific Railroad crossing gate on Grand Avenue that snarled midday traffic Tuesday and forced detours.

Ozaukee Press reporters Kristyn Halbig Ziehm and Dan Benson contributed to this story.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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