January 10 marked the 41-year anniversary of a blizzard like none Omaha had seen before or since. It dumped more than 14 inches of snow with drifts up to 20 feet in some places. Winds, which reached 60 miles an hour, caused white-out conditions.
“We had an idea it was coming,” said OPPD retiree Bruce Hayden, who worked as a project manager for T&D at the time. “Of course we didn’t have all the forecasting technology that we have now,” he said.
“The storm hit and we worked a normal day,” recalled OPPD retiree Bill Stattler, who was a draftsman in Engineering back then. “We didn’t know it was going to be so bad.”
The electrical issues with this storm were fairly minor.
“The real problem wasn’t necessarily the outages,” Hayden said. “We had a few crews in, just in case, but that didn’t do much good. They couldn’t get around.”
That, as it turns out, would be the major issue for OPPD and the rest of the area – not outages, but mobility.
Stattler said his car broke down before he even got a chance to drive home in the snow.
“Fortunately, a co-worker, Rudy Padilla, came by and I ended up spending the whole weekend at his place before I could get dug out and get home. I just know there was way too much snow to deal with.”
Hayden was stuck somewhere a little less accommodating. He spent three nights at work at 43rd & Jones streets, where OPPD’s Energy Control Center is currently housed. A number of other employees were stuck right alongside him.
“The heating system couldn’t quite keep up, so we gathered up whatever we could, like bundles of bags from the store room, to try and stay warm. And then, of course, food became an issue.”
Hayden said at one point over that three days, a co-worker made it down to a sandwich shop at 25th & Farnam streets, and everybody managed to get a sandwich. But outside of that, they didn’t eat a whole lot.
Food was also an issue at Fort Calhoun Station, where approximately 40 employees were stuck, waiting out the storm. According to a story in the Blair Enterprise newspaper at the time, a C.B. radio enthusiast overheard the problem and got her husband involved. He made his way to the plant on a road grader carrying supplies that included eggs, ham, bologna, cheese, crackers, pickles and cigarettes.
The article said, “It took Mr. Campbell 2 ½ hours to make the round trip of less than two miles.”
The OPPD employees were among hundreds in and around the Omaha metro who were stranded at work. Some 10,000 cars were stuck on the roadways, as well.
OPPD crews in four-wheel drive vehicles and snowmobiles found themselves in the roles of rescuers several times. One crew picked up people injured in an accident, getting them to the hospital. Another, from the Papillion Service Center, assisted a Ralston Rescue squad when their ambulance became stuck. They got the squad to their destination, where they delivered a baby boy.
And yet another OPPD crew from the Papillion Service Center spotted a stranded motorist, Cindy Jenny, who’d left for home on foot when her car got stuck.
She became stranded and disoriented. After more than an hour outside trying to find her way she was beginning to succumb to her exhaustion. That’s when crew members Nick Foltz, Ray Johnson and Dale Mintken picked her up and saved her.
Still, 13 people lost their lives in that storm. A relative of Bruce Hayden was among them.
“My wife’s uncle tried to help someone with a stalled car and suffered a heart attack.” Hayden said.
His oldest son tried to make his way through the snow to help comfort his grandmother, but got stuck and suffered from hypothermia. He credits his wife, Roxanne, for handling these hardships – not to mention a malfunctioning furnace – on her own, while he was stranded at work.
“We were just praying there wouldn’t be many outages,” he said. And there weren’t. “We were fortunate we didn’t have a lot of ice before this storm came. If we had, it would be a completely different story.”