130 stranded motorists processed through two Chatham-Kent arenas

While it was a dream come true for many to have a white Christmas, many are just trying to find their cars again.

The Friday, December 23 snowstorm was so intense it caused multiple vehicle crashes and people abandoning vehicles on roads.

The closures included Highway 401 from Tilbury to London.

On December 23, around noon, a Significant Weather Event was declared by the Municipality of Chatham.

“Near zero visibility due to blowing snow in outlying areas has resulted in snowplows being pulled from service temporarily,” said Ryan Brown, Chatham-Kent Public Works Director. “Blowing and drifting snow can cause recently cleared roads to become challenging to navigate. Please plan to stay at home wherever possible, or if you must travel, please allow extra time and drive with extra caution.”

Chris Case, Chatham-Kent Chief of Fire and Emergency Services, said Police, Fire, and EMS crews are fully involved in extricating victims in several motor vehicle accidents.

“The situation is deteriorating. We’re trying to get people safely out of their vehicles and provide medical assistance. We don’t need anyone to venture onto the roads and create more incidents. Please stay home.”

The winter storm produced snow mixed with high winds with snow squalls making driving conditions extremely dangerous. Some snowplows had to be pulled from rural roads as visibility was near zero.

Jim Blake, Communications Officer at the Municipality of Chatham-Kent, sent a message around 5 p.m. on December 23 to all media sources to see if they could help lodge stranded motorists.

“There are stranded motorists currently sheltering in the Ridgetown and Tilbury arenas who need accommodations for the night,” stated Blake. “If you have room at your home to take in one or more individuals, please call ...”

Jennifer Johns, a Ridgetown Kiwanian, got the message and began spearheading finding homes in town for those stranded on Friday, December 23.

Despite her efforts of coordinating, Johns said she was a small part of what was truly a full community effort.

“It wasn’t me. I was just one person. I was just at home on my phone. I wasn’t out shovelling or pulling out people in the cold,” said Johns.

Johns sent fellow Kiwanis members an email and contact and a short description of the situation.

Word quickly got out, and the community of Ridgetown stepped up to help those in need with shelter, food and much more for the holidays.

Johns said The Smokehouse restaurant provided a meal for lunch on Saturday, December 24, for everyone, and Kiwanis members volunteered to distribute leftover food. She said while funding came through, it wasn’t needed because the municipality offered to cover all the food costs.

According to Johns, the Ridgetown arena had 98 people come through, and there were well over 60 people locally who were housed.

“There were at least 15-20 that stayed overnight at the arena on Friday,” said Johns. “Some of the host families kept families for two nights.”

But again, Johns said she was only a small part.

“There were also individual farmers who dug out people from ditches and hosted them out in the country because there was nowhere else to go. Really what I did was a very small part. Ridgetown stepped up when people needed them,” she said.

Many stories have been shared about donations from all the service groups, businesses, and so many individuals offered blankets, food, or whatever was asked of them.

On Saturday, December 24, Christmas Eve, Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff issued a State of Emergency.

The municipality had 35 snowplows operating throughout the day, and officials estimated there were hundreds of stranded cars throughout the municipality.

Cars were banned from parking on municipal streets for crews to be able to clear snow off the streets.

“We are asking motorists to make every effort to move their vehicles off the streets so that the plows can clear the roads more effectively,” said Ryan Brown, Director of Public Works. “We recognize this is an inconvenience, but there are no other options.”

On Sunday, December 25, Highways 40 and 401 reopened, but police and municipal officials still urged extreme caution when travelling due to the potential of changing weather conditions overnight.

Chatham-Kent lifted the State of Emergency on Monday, December 26, at 2 p.m.

Emergency shelters at the Ridgetown and Tilbury arenas closed Christmas night after more than 130 stranded motorists were processed through the two arenas.

After the storm subsided and people began to travel again, the municipality gave another warning.

“There are still isolated areas where abandoned vehicles remain along roadways,” stated municipal officials. “That factor and the issue of blowing and drifting snow have led officials to urge extreme caution when travelling since some roads remain snow-covered.”

Chatham-Kent Police say any citizen who left vehicles abandoned on roads within the Municipality of CK during the storm should contact Chatham Towing (519-436-1000), Dave Cragg Towing (519-351-1157) or Wrights Towing (519-678-3327) to find out where their vehicle can be picked up. Individuals whose vehicles have been towed by the Chatham-Kent Police Service can call 519-436-6600 ext. 222 to find the location of their vehicle.

Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News