During a blizzard, countless folks stepped up to help those in need
I don’t often get goosebumps when I’m doing interviews, but Monday morning, despite having a space heater directly in front of me, I shivered as Jeff Bernatz recounted a Sunday maybe never seen before here in Chickasaw County.
Bernatz is the Chickasaw County emergency management director, and to say Sunday was crazy for him, law-enforcement officers and rescue workers would not be doing justice to the word insanity.
But this is a story of teamwork and a tale of what makes our little corner of the world so special.
It’s a saga of the Blizzard of 2019, one that showed just how caring New Hampton and Chickasaw County are.
The blizzard was, in a word, ferocious, and we can quibble about the fact that so many people thought they could “make it” to wherever they were going despite winds that were gusting over 50 miles per hour, but in the end, we opened up our hearts to those in need.
That’s what matters.
From the moment I awoke Sunday morning, I knew we were in for a day from you know where because the wind positively howled outside my bedroom window. I quickly dressed, began shoveling and was saved by my good friend, Grant Anderson, who drove by and told me to get into his pickup. We went to his house, loaded his snowblower and an hour later, I was off to work.
I did my blizzard thing — made calls, drove around with another good pal, Rick Kramer, to get some pictures (although I must insert here that we did not — I repeat, did not — leave town) and came back to the office.
My ex-wife, Robin Harnack, works at the Super 8 Motel, and I checked in with her, only to find out that she was experiencing a day like one never before. Dozens of motorists — some who had been stuck for hours in ditches, some who decided they had to get off the road — wanted rooms, and soon the Super 8 was full.
Now, here is where the story gets good, and I mean really good.
She called New Hampton Mayor Deb Larsen and Bernatz. What can we do?
They were already on it.
Bernatz had called the Roadway Inn, which many of us still call Southgate, and found out that they had several rooms available.
But the Roadway has a host of “seasonal” rooms that aren’t used in the winter.
What about those?
The one employee working at the Roadway said they would need to be prepared, snow would have to be plowed and she just couldn’t do it all.
“I told her, ‘Look, we’ll make it happen,’” Bernatz said.
The emergency management director paged the New Hampton Fire Department and the Chickasaw County Rescue Squad, and firefighters and rescue workers — along with potential guests — went to work preparing to reopen a segment of the inn.
They plowed snow. They cleaned rooms. They put sheets and blankets on beds.
“It’s amazing to me,” Bernatz said Monday morning. “I mean this isn’t what they signed up for, but the guys all jumped in. They didn’t question it. They just did what you’d want anyone to do if it was your family stuck in a community far from home. It was, I’ll say it again, amazing.”
But the story gets better because soon the Roadway was full, yet more people were still coming off the highway.
That’s when Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor Kevin Frey told officials the church could be used as an emergency shelter.
Rescue Squad members headed out to the Heritage just south of New Hampton to pick up cots that are stored there. They, imagine this, got stuck, but Wayne Johnson quickly plowed a path for them and soon, Trinity Lutheran Church was home to 40 or so stranded motorists.
Mayor Larsen stayed the night with a group of people that I’m guessing will always hold our little city in their hearts.
I’ve heard countless stories over the last 24 hours of New Hampton people and organizations reaching out to help those in need.
The Carnegie Cultural Center had its own sleepover as three families returning to Wisconsin from a hunting trip were stranded in New Hampton. One of the families included Gene Eike, the younger brother of Dennis Eike. The latter Eike’s wife is the director of the New Hampton museum, and she opened the Carnegie to the families, who watched “Night at the Museum” projected on a sheet during their stay.
New Hampton’s Kwik Star and Casey’s stores, along with several residents, provided food for those at Trinity, and honestly, the list can go on and on and on.
In the end, what matters is that so many of our people — our cops, our deputies, our rescue workers, our firefighters — did what it took to keep people safe.
The Rescue Squad received its first page at 6:30 Sunday morning to help with multiple vehicles that were stuck on Highway 63. Throughout the day, our law-enforcement officers and our emergency volunteers braved life-threatening elements to rescue what seemed like countless stranded motorists.
They also plowed snow, cleaned rooms, put sheets on bed … in other words, they went above and beyond, and we owe all of them a debt of gratitude.
“It’s neat. I can’t think of any other word for it,” said Bernatz, who I will add performed magnificently Sunday, “and I think it shows you what kind of people we have here. I’m so proud of these people. No one complained, no one bitched, they just went out and did whatever it took.”