Western Manitoba opens doors for stranded travellers

Communities in western Manitoba found themselves sheltering travellers Mar. 6-7 as the 
storm raged and highways closed

Life ground to a halt in much of western Manitoba Mar. 6-7, as heavy snow, winds and whiteout conditions closed highways, leaving many travellers stranded and some needing rescue.

Brandon spent 31 hours with visibility below 400 metres. The same area saw up to 41 centimetres of snow, sustained winds of 71 kilometres an hour and gusts up to 87 kilometres an hour, matching wind speeds in Morden, Berens River and Gretna, but below the 105-kilometre-an-hour gusts logged in Churchill.

Motorists found themselves suddenly seeking shelter as conditions deteriorated. David Matthews of the Municipality of Whitehead’s volunteer fire department said they were called to an accident on Highway 1, only to be faced with lines of vehicles unable to move and trapped on the road. After ensuring traveller safety, firefighters were forced to leave motorists to spend the night in their vehicles, returning the next morning by snowmobile.

Treacherous conditions led to accidents and damaged vehicles near Alexander, Man., Mar. 6-7.
photo: David Matthews

“We came back to town and it was very bad driving conditions, the worst I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Matthews says 75 adults and five children were sheltered in residents’ homes or the local school gym.

It was the first time his community has dealt with rescue efforts of this scale, Matthews said.

“I was amazed by how everybody just linked together. People were just texting, phoning, ‘what can I do?’” he said.

Perry Asham of Winnipeg was one of those stranded adults. Asham had been travelling from Regina to Winnipeg with his daughters when the storm hit. The family was within half an hour of Brandon when they were advised to take shelter.

Freezing rain coats the Brandon area in a layer of ice during the first hours of the storm Mar. 6.
photo: Alexis Stockford

“We started on our way over here to Alexander, and my daughter gets stuck and then I swerved around her so I wouldn’t hit her and then I got stuck and then a couple of fellows from the community were driving the grader and the loader and pulled us both out and directed us here and scraped ahead of us with the grader,” Asham said.

Travellers remained at the school well into Mar. 8 while the Trans-Canada Highway remained closed.

Similar stories played out throughout western Manitoba.

The owners of Mitchell’s Drug Store in Roblin took to their snowmobiles to deliver prescriptions Mar. 7 after their store was unable to open.

“We knew that some people were going to need their medications that day, so we decided that we would have to snowmobile there because there was no other way that we were going to get there,” Whitney Mitchell said.

It was the first time either she or co-owner Sean Keeler have made such house calls.

Brandon resident George Bissonnette brings the snowblower back out after winter returned to the region with a vengeance Mar. 6-7.
photo: Alexis Stockford


In Souris, meanwhile, the rescue of Ally Gonzalez and Evan Davis made headlines when the American couple became stuck along Highway 22. The two were trapped in their vehicle without heat when Gonzalez’s mother, Lori Schury-Gonzalez, reached out to local residents over Facebook. The resulting rescue played out over social media as residents attempted multiple times to reach the couple, only to become stuck themselves. Others co-ordinated shelter for the pair, who were retrieved 10:45 p.m. Mar. 6.

Souris resident Robin Blecker played host to Gonzalez and Davis following their rescue.

Both private homes and the community hall had been opened Mar. 6 as the influx of storm-stayed travellers overwhelmed the town’s two hotels.

“People were offering whatever is necessary,” Blecker said. “I don’t think anybody’s starving. I don’t think anybody’s going without shelter. We’ve just pulled together and made it work at the drop of a dime.

“Despite the fact that we knew that a storm was coming, I don’t think anyone realized the intensity and I don’t think anybody realized how quickly it would come up, because we were raining and then we were in the middle of a blizzard and it happened almost instantly.”

Natalie Hasell, emergency preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the storm did not track unusually fast, but blizzard conditions were preceded by a long period of freezing rain before temperatures necessary for snow were reached.

Hasell added that systems such as the recent blizzard are not uncommon at the beginning and end of winter and are not unreasonable to expect in March or April.

“The intensity of the storm was particularly significant though,” she said.

Outside the Brandon region, reports of stranded travellers blanketed western Manitoba.

Thompson saw 50 centimetres of snow, 85-kilometre-an-hour wind gusts and seven hours of severely reduced visibility, Dauphin saw 22 centimetres of snow, ahead of Boissevain’s 20, and Roblin saw wind gusts up to 74 kilometres an hour.

The storm was followed by extreme cold warnings across most of Manitoba. Temperatures dipped to -30 C overnight Mar. 9, with wind chills approaching -40 C.

Local government and policy-makers now turn to the impact and flood implications of the storm. Manitoba flood forecasters have already predicted that both Souris and lower Assiniboine rivers have a major risk of flooding this spring.

Brandon resident Shane Smith digs himself out Mar. 7.
photo: Alexis Stockford

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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