Storm refugees tell stories of being trapped in Summit |

Storm refugees tell stories of being trapped in Summit

summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Eric Drummond

SUMMIT COUNTY ” More than 2,100 unexpected visitors found refuge Sunday night in local emergency shelters as high winds and blowing snow caused the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to close I-70 in both directions.

Sunday’s road closures, which included Hoosier Pass and U.S. 285 over Kenosha Pass, hit the high country particularly hard because of its timing. Traffic on Sunday afternoons during ski season is usually heavy, and the weekend between the Christmas and New Years holidays is among the busiest of the year for area ski resorts, with many hotels and other lodging companies already at capacity.

The lack of accurate warning also contributed to local congestion, as many vacationers started toward home Sunday afternoon without any idea that a devastating storm was on its way.

“We left Vail at 3:30 on our way home,” said Scott Raecker of Urbandale, Iowa, as he stood next to his wife and two children lounging on cots set up in gym at the Silverthorne Recreation Center. “We used to live in Vail and we’re familiar with winter driving. No one said it would be this bad.”

Raecker and his family pulled into Dillon’s Super 8 Motel around 6 p.m. and were told no rooms were available. They called the police department who directed them to the Rec Center, where they were among the first refugees to arrive.

The Rec Center eventually housed nearly 1,000 stranded travelers despite its projected capacity of 400. Some curled up on gym mats under Red Cross blankets, while others stretched out on treadmills or propped themselves up on exercise bikes.

Emergency services personnel, including Rec Center staff and law enforcement, worked alongside an army of volunteers to answer questions and distribute food, water, coffee, juice, cots and blankets. More that 35 volunteers ” mostly senior citizens ” worked through the night.

“We made it a point not to turn anyone away,” Red Cross volunteer coordinator John Taylor ” himself a volunteer ” said Monday morning.

As people continued to pour in Sunday evening, the Rec Center filled to capacity and more shelters were opened. While most stranded motorists praised the county’s smooth organization, some families found themselves out in the cold, at least temporarily.

“They told us there wasn’t any room,” Joe Ogrodny of Colorado Springs said Monday morning, as he and his 5-year-old son Jake bounced a volleyball back and forth between the bodies of sleeping stragglers in the gym.

Ogrodny, his wife and their three small children had left Copper Mountain Sunday afternoon. “We decided to let the kids ski one more day,” he said. Blowing snow forced the Ogrodnys off the highway at the Frisco exit.

By the time the family realized no hotel rooms were available and made their way to the Silverthorne Rec Center at around 8 p.m., the shelter was already bursting at its seams.

“We’d bought sleeping bags at Wal-Mart, so we parked in the parking lot of the Vitamin Cottage (in Dillon), flattened out the seats in the SUV and tried to sleep,” Ogrodny said. They kept warm by running the vehicle’s engine for a few minutes every hour or so. Ogrodny had left his cell phone number with Rec Center staff and at 11:30 p.m., they called and told him to bring his family back to the shelter. There weren’t any cots or mats left, but the family found a spot on the gym floor and were able to spend a warm night.

Area Red Cross director Lindsay Ishman said she wasn’t surprised to hear about the Ogrodny’s difficulties.

“This is the biggest shelter mobilization we’ve ever had here,” she said. “We’ve used all our resources. We’re really stretched.”

Summit County emergency director Joel Cochran agreed that Sunday night’s undertaking was unprecedented. “Two hundred to 500 is the most we’ve ever sheltered,” he said. “This was an enormous increase.”

In addition to the Silverthorne Rec Center, other area shelters included Silverthorne Elementary, Summit Middle School, Breckenridge Recreation Center, Copper Mountain employee housing, Dillon Community Church, Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church, Rocky Mountain Bible Church, Agape Outpost Baptist Chapel and Silverthorne’s La Quinta Inn and Suites.

As of noon on Monday, hundreds of cars and trucks continued to line Highway 6 in Dillon and Silverthorne, waiting for the interstate to reopen.

Eduardo Vasquez, of Hesperia, Calif., said he wasn’t in any hurry to leave his spot on a mat in the Summit Middle School gym.

“I’ve never driven in weather like this,” he said as he slumped against the gym’s cinderblock wall.” Vasquez left his home near Sacramento Saturday afternoon, in a rented late-model Ford Mustang, on his way to Colorado Springs. Traveling without snow tires or winter coats, he and his companion Stephanie Licea made it part way up to the tunnel before the weather turned them around.

“We were fishtailing about every 10 feet. There was no visibility at all and we kept getting stuck,” Licea said. Eventually the couple were forced to turn around and make a nerve-racking drive back to Silverthorne in the eastbound lane.

“At some points you couldn’t see anything,” Vasquez said. “You’re going in the opposite direction so you’re nervous anyway.”

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