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Local first responders help out stranded motorists in pre-Christmas blizzard

Sean Ellertson
St. James Plaindealer

Last Wednesday, as the snow started to fall and the wind began to whip across Minnesota, Watonwan County first responders sprung into action, preparing for a night of helping out travelers stranded due to the inclimate weather.

Watonwan County Deputy Mark Slater— who wasn’t scheduled to work until another deputy got caught in the storm—reached out to fire chief Brad Orvis to see if St. James firefighters could move cots into the First Presbyterian Church, which had been opened up to house any people stranded out in the cold.

"It was just something we were asked if we could help out," said Orvis. "Of course I told the sheriff's office we'd take care of it and with the help of First Presbyterian Church we set up shop there."

"It kind of just snowballed from there," said firefighter Dustin Anderson. "We got a bunch of cots and people just started showing up."

Anderson estimates that people starting showing up at the church for shelter at around 4:30 p.m.

As the snow continued to fall, more people continued to show up. In addition to the handful of firefighters at the church, Anderson estimates that around 40 to 50 people eventually found their way to the church. Local businesses including SuperFair Foods and Schmidt’s Bakery donated food for the cause.

Firefighters and police officers picked up and escorted travelers caught in ditches to the church as the night went on.

“They could not see, they just literally drove right into the ditch, not knowing that’s what they were doing,” said Slater.

Travelers came from all over the country, including Virginia and Texas. One couple was from out of the country visiting.

“It was probably second the worst storm I’ve ever had to work during,” said Slater. “It was a great partnership between law enforcement and fire. I think our county has a very good working relationship with law enforcement, fire, and EMS. When one calls upon the other, they’re always ready to help out.”

The last person to leave stayed until around 10 a.m. the next morning. "It kind of made my Christmas," said Anderson. "Not that this storm happened but just being able to help people in a time of need."