LAPORTE, Ind. — More than 70 motorists were stuck for hours Monday in biting temperatures on snow-covered highways in northwest Indiana as strong winds hampered snow plow drivers' efforts to free them. By Monday afternoon, most had been rescued safely, but a few were still trapped by drifts.
Authorities said strong winds with gusts up to 30 mph were delaying rescue efforts.
"As soon as the plows go through an area, the wind is blowing fresh snow right back into the roads," state highway department spokesman Jim Pinkerton said. "It is just really difficult for us to keep up against that wind and snow."
Lake-effect snow is blamed
The wind and heavy lake effect snow were part of a slow-moving storm that has been crawling across the Midwest since Friday night. At least 15 deaths have been attributed to the storm, which dumped nearly 2 feet of snow in parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin before moving into Michigan and Indiana. Monday, it stretched further east, with snow in parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
Northwest Indiana was hardest hit Monday, with up to 16 inches of snow in some areas around LaPorte. Lake effect snow develops when cold air rushes over the warmer water in Lake Michigan.
One of the worst in years
The strong wind made the storm one of the worst to hit the area in the past few years, said Beth West, the assistant director of LaPorte County 911. The blowing snow caused whiteout conditions at times, making even a giant inflatable Santa Claus sitting on the corner outside the county courthouse partially obscured.
About 70 vehicles were trapped by snow drifts Monday morning on a section of Indiana 2 in the Valparaiso area. Police said they were found warm and safe in their vehicles.
Others were trapped overnight on U.S. 30, some for more than 12 hours, LaPorte County sheriff's Deputy Andy Hynek said. Crews used front-end loaders to remove the drifts, but West said a few vehicles remained stuck Monday afternoon. Plows were trying to get to them.
"It's slow going because the winds are so atrocious out there," West said.
Truck drivers stopped at the Junction City Restaurant in nearby Rolling Prairie near the intersection of U.S. 20 and Indiana 2 for lunch, hoping the conditions would improve. They said driving was particularly difficult in areas where wind was blowing across open farmland, sweeping the snow onto highways and making it hard to see.