A storm that dumped some 20 inches of windblown snow on southern Wisconsin earlier this week left hundreds of motorists caught in a massive traffic backup while bringing schools, buses and airports across the region to a standstill.
The big backup developed on westbound Interstate 90 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 stretch 19 miles and involve about 500 vehicles, officials said.
Gov. Jim Doyle finally called a state of emergency in Dane and Rock counties so that National Guard troops could be sent in to help. Snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles were already being used to check on those in the vehicles and bring them food or fuel as needed.
Capt. Lee McMenamin of the Wisconsin State Patrol said that during the storm vehicles were gradually trickling out of the backup as the semis were being freed, one by one.
Across southern Wisconsin, snowfall reports as the storm was winding down Wednesday evening ranged to 21 inches near Beloit and 19.5 inches at Orfordville in south central Wisconsin, and 20.1 inches in Saukville and 19 inches at Jackson, both north of Milwaukee. Madison had 13.3 inches and Milwaukee 11.5 inches.
Visibility was so poor in Green County during the storm that snow plow operators were called off the roads shortly before noon, county highway commissioner Dallas Cecil of Monroe said.
“The winds are blowing so hard the guys can’t see the front of their trucks,” he said.
A few plow operators made emergency runs for vehicles that slipped into ditches because “drivers wouldn’t listen when they were told to stay off the road,” he said.
As the snow kept falling, a few people were cross country skiing on sidewalks outside the state Capitol building in Madison.
General Mitchell International Airport at Milwaukee stopped all flights and even suspended plowing due to the falling and drifting snow.
Two traffic fatalities were blamed on the storm. A 51-year-old man was killed when he lost control of his car on a slick portion of Interstate 94 and slid in front of a semitrailer in Milwaukee County. A 59-year-old Oak Creek man died when his pickup truck crashed into a pole in Milwaukee.
The Milwaukee County Transit System suspended bus service at 5:30 p.m. after 23 buses carrying passengers became stuck in snow.
“Out of concern for public safety we do not want to encourage people to travel in this weather,” the transit system said in its announcement.
Authorities throughout the state also discouraged people from traveling.
More than 4,500 WE Energies customers lost power in scattered outages during the day, spokesman Brian Manthey said.
Hundreds of schools and businesses across southern Wisconsin closed Wednesday, including Milwaukee Public Schools, several Milwaukee area shopping malls and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The snow caused Walworth County court officials to cancel proceedings Wednesday in Mark Jensen’s lengthy trial in Elkhorn. Jensen is accused of poisoning and suffocating his wife in 1998.
Occasional brief periods of blizzard-like conditions developed along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Milwaukee to Kenosha as the snowfall picked up Wednesday, said meteorologist Rusty Kapela of the National Weather Service’s Sullivan office.
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