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Monday, Dec. 22, 2014

Surviving the 'Blizzard of 1979'

Thursday, February 26, 2004

(Photo)
Stranded motorists of the Feb. 25, 1979, blizzard seek shelter at the National Guard Armory.
SIKESTON -- While children jumped for joy as their schools were closed the day after and several following the blizzard of 1979, their parents and other adults in the community dealt with the aftermath of the harsh winter storm.

Lt. Brent Davis of the Missouri State Highway Patrol's Troop E was only in his fourth year working as a trooper in Southeast Missouri when the blizzard dumped between 18-24 inches of snow throughout the area on Sunday, Feb. 25, 1979.

Davis was due into work at 6 p.m. Sunday and couldn't get his vehicle out of his driveway because a 6-foot drift blocking it.

"I called my sergeant and he said, 'Well, get dressed and get out in the driveway. Surely you can find a four-wheel drive vehicle and hitch a ride.' So that's what I did," Davis recalled.

Davis got home around noon Monday, but not before getting stuck in the snow.

"It was a blowing snow. It could be 3 feet in one area and a real high drift; every place wasn't the same," said Charles Ancell, who brought his 5-day-old daughter home from the hospital that Sunday morning.

Scott County Central High School English and speech teacher Myrna Carlisle remembers Scott Central was out of school for a long time, "at least a week if not longer," she noted.

"Many were not prepared and the weather was colder than predicted," Carlisle said. "Motorists were stranded on highways and some area residents took people into their homes because hotels were full."

Big trucks were so cold the diesel ge

l froze and the interstates closed for two or three days, Davis noted.

"Interstate 57 was blocked, and there were hundreds of cars in Illinois," Davis said. "And I-55 was blocked. We used snowmobiles to get motorists who were stranded. I think they were being put up in Miner Baptist Church and the Sikeston Armory."

Road crews, law enforcement officials, medical staff and various members of the community came together and worked long hours to help one another out.

"The highway department worked 24 hours a day. They were very well prepared and had the equipment to stay out and went nonstop," Davis said. "Those are the times you just do what you have to do."

Maintenance crews were working 15-16 hour shifts, maybe even 18 hours in some cases, noted Scott Perry, who worked in the design department of the Missouri Department of Transportation in Sikeston, but volunteered to help his co-workers in the maintenance department.

"They were letting any of us who volunteered help out," Perry said, adding that it took about a week to get the interstates and state routes cleared. Members of the National Guard also offered assistance in cleaning off county and town roads.

A majority of Scott County Central's students and teachers lived on county roads, which were in a worse condition than the city's roads, Carlisle pointed out.

"Roads were really bad in the country, especially with the drifts," said Carlisle, who lives in Sikeston. "In town, there are buildings that block a lot of that. People were driving over fields because they couldn't get down the roads."

A lot of people were helping other people, Carlisle said. Those who had four-wheel drive trucks would go to the country roads and ask people if they needed anything, she noted. Ambulances couldn't even get down the roads, she said.

"Four-wheel drives were a novelty in '79," Ancell remarked.

Davis spent most of his time working in Scott County and also remembered the high drifts on the county roads, especially near Route H.

"There was a woman who lived down that road and she was pregnant and in labor. We had to get her to a hospital so we took a front loader -- and the drifts were a lot higher than the vehicles -- and we made a single path to the front door," Davis recalled.

Despite numerous wrecks and stranded vehicles, Davis couldn't recall any serious injuries of motorists. And Ancell, who was working in the finance department at Missouri Delta Medical Center at the time, didn't remember any staffing shortages at the hospital either.

The funny thing was meteorologists weren't even calling for the storm, Carlisle recalled.

"They said it will maybe accumulate 5-6 inches, and it kept coming and coming," she laughed.

While the blizzard of 1979 may be an event many will never forget, for some it remains a bit of a blur.

Capt. Joe Sebourn, now in his 34th year with the Sikeston Department of Public Safety, admitted he couldn't recall specifics of the major event.

"We just had trouble responding to calls and we used some four-wheel drive trucks to get to the people," Sebourn said. "The National Guard was called out -- it was a heck of a deal."

And Ancell said he thinks the winter storm of January 1978 was worse than the one in 1979.

Either way, it was definitely something no one expected, Carlisle pointed out.

"I think it's an example of people working to help each other," Carlisle said. "Anytime you have something that shows the good side of people -- whether you knew them or not -- is a wonderful thing."