Stranded travelers-shelter

Aakriti Agrawal of Lincoln (left) and her parents, Arvind (second-from-left) and Sushma (right), pose for a photo with Cyndee Merritt and Cindy Esely of Savannah, Missouri, who set up a shelter for travelers who were stranded along Interstate 29 during Sunday's blizzard.

The most memorable part of Aakriti Agrawal’s Thanksgiving weekend with her parents had nothing to do with turkey, stuffing or pie — or even the time spent in St. Louis with friends.

It had everything to do with a windswept, whiteout, close-the-interstate snowstorm that left them stranded — and the folks of a Missouri town named Savannah who rescued them.

“You hear about these things on the news,” said Agrawal, a 2016 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who works as a data analyst for a startup in Lincoln. “You think ‘Those idiots, how did they get stranded?’ — now we are those people.”

And she learned, as one of those people, that the drive-by towns near the interstate are home to some very caring, efficient, kind people.

“It was a very small town and we were expecting absolutely nothing,” she said. "But these people took responsibility and took care of us.”

It was one of those freak November storms. In Lincoln, the 3.6 inches of snow recorded Sunday, which caused havoc on local roads, pushed the season total to 10.7 inches. That ranks as the fifth-most snow before Dec. 1 in 118 years of records. It's the most snow this early since 1997.

Heavier snow fell over Southeast Nebraska and into Iowa and Missouri, where strong winds caused whiteout conditions. Near St. Joseph, where Savannah is located, snowfall totals were in the 6- to 8-inch range.

Agrawal and her parents, who live in Omaha, had left for St. Louis on Wednesday. Their car broke down in Kansas City, so they left it there to be repaired and drove a rental the rest of the way.

Sunday morning was sunny and warm in St. Louis — despite forecasts of snow — and they had to get to Kansas City to pick up their car, so they figured they’d weather whatever storm was coming.

They got to Kansas City about 11:30 a.m. — and it was still clear. But their car wasn’t fixed, so a tow truck left ahead of them to take it back to Nebraska.

By the time they got another rental car, it had begun snowing, but they felt they needed to follow the tow truck, so they set out for home.

North of Kansas City, Interstate 29 was closed and those who wanted to keep going were rerouted along county roads they could barely see.

“It was basically a whiteout. You couldn’t see anything,” Agrawal said. “They rerouted us to this random road that led us through this small town called Savannah.”

Not far outside the town, their car got stuck.

Their first encounter with the residents of Savannah was two young men who helped them get their car unstuck. The Agrawals decided to go back to Savannah to wait until the storm let up, but got stuck again, so the same young men loaded them into their pickup along with all their luggage, and took them to a convenience store, where they settled in.

Fortunately for them, Cyndee Merritt and Cindy Esely had some experience with bad weather.

In 2007, Savannah residents had weathered an ice storm that knocked out power for days, left hundreds of townspeople stranded and convinced Merritt and Esely they needed to learn something about creating shelters.

The women had become friends when Merritt was the county clerk and Esely the county treasurer and both were members of a local emergency preparedness committee. So they took a class to learn the skills and equipment needed to shelter people from a storm.

“Yesterday was the first time we got to use them,” Merritt said.

The class had taught them well. The town had a well-stocked trailer from the American Red Cross with blankets and pillows and toiletries and forms people could fill out to inform the volunteers of medical needs or language barriers.

* * *

There was no kitchen at the middle school where they set up a shelter, so the women stopped at one of Savannah's two grocery stores already picked over by customers preparing for the storm.

The women nabbed the last two loaves of bread, some hamburger buns, cold cuts and chips, bottled water and coffee.

Families who heard about the shelter brought in crock pots of vegetable beef and potato soup.

When deputies brought the Agrawals to the middle school, there were cots and food, new blankets and pillows — and other stranded motorists.

A total of 21 people came to the middle school, and while some headed back out when the interstate opened later that night, many stayed. Deputies got insulin for one stranded motorist.

A couple with two young children stayed, as did four college-aged young men — one of whom was celebrating his 22nd birthday and recognized Agrawal from new student orientation at UNL. She was working there, and he was a freshman.

Agrawal also recognized Rachel Long, a UNL senior from Michigan. Long and her best friend got stranded trying to make it to the Omaha airport, where her friend was supposed to catch a flight home.

“It was a very Nebraska experience — everyone knew everyone,” Agrawal said.

Long said Google Maps was no help, leading them astray in blinding snow, so they were lucky it happened in Savannah. 

“We couldn’t see a thing. Google Maps told us to take a right on what we found out was a back dirt road.”

But they called 911 and spent a couple of hours in the sheriff’s office until the shelter was ready.

“It was really sweet,” Long said. “We couldn’t afford a hotel, we didn’t know anyone.”

Savannah, as it turns out, has no hotels but does have Merritt and Esely and a host of deputies, volunteer firefighters and others who stepped up.

They fed everyone at the shelter — both the volunteers and the stranded motorists — and the next morning served breakfast.

Then the deputies took the motorists to find their cars. Tow trucks from Savannah and surrounding towns helped free them from the snow.

The Agrawals' rental car, it turned out, had been towed. It took some time to track it down and deputies took them to a nearby town to retrieve it.

* * *

They arrived strangers, and left friends — and Merritt wouldn't change a thing. 

“I just love to do volunteer work,” she said. “I love to help people, so it just worked out well for everybody.”

Agrawal ranks this Thanksgiving as one of the best, and she thanks the kindness of the people of Savannah for that.

“They were amazing people,” she said. “There are no words to describe how that experience felt.”

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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