The urge to get home meets a blizzard

There’s really only one question to be answered in Minnesota news today:

If weatherpeople gave us a three-day warning about a blizzard (they did), and authorities told drivers in southern Minnesota to stay off the road (they did), why were so many people stranded and had to be rescued by first responders who had to assume the risk of doing so?

At least 88 people had been rescued in Freeborn and Steele counties, the Star Tribune said. Waseca County reported 40 travelers were stranded and weren’t rescued until Sunday night, the Mankato Free Press said.

Some travelers stopped at the armory in Owatonna, which had been set up as a shelter, and still had to be stopped from trying to go out and drive again.

“They just think that they should have been able to make it,” the head of the emergency response team said. “They think they’re going to leave, but we keep telling them ‘no.’ ”

What’s going on here? Likely it’s a version of the malady that tends to kill pilots: “get-home-itis.”

There’s no logic to it, but it’s a powerful pull to get home, our perception of the safest locale, even if we need to become more unsafe to get there. (Here’s my own story of when I nearly succumbed to it)

It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re stupid; it means as humans we are bound by psychological forces that overwhelm our capacity to exercise judgment. About the only antidote is to recognize when get-home-itis is at work.

Rescue stories: Weather makes rescue challenging in Cook County (Duluth News Tribune)

Archive: Why we drive through standing water (NewsCut)

  • MrE85

    To some degree, I understand the motivation of the stranded motorists. But the ice anglers that had to be rescued in a blizzard? There is no excuse for that level of foolishness.

    • I find it fascinating that there is 14 inches of slush on a lake where the temperature hasn’t been above freezing since god was a boy.

      • MrE85

        I wondered about that, too.

      • fromthesidelines21

        If I understand it correctly the snow pack is heavy and causing the ice to sink. That opens cracks for water to flow which makes and slush layer that is well insulated from the snow on top.

  • Barton

    It wasn’t just get-home-itis that made you say “what were you thinking” this weekend. There was also get-out-itis. (I hope this link for the video works).

  • jon

    We’ve spent decades discrediting weather forecasts for not being 100% accurate 100% of the time.

    I mean a 3 day forecast is only accurate 4 out of 5 times (and a bit of reading on the updraft blog will tell you on that 5th time that the models are uncertain). You can hardly expect that just because forecasters are right most of the time that people would listen to them, given a lifetime of propaganda run against them.

    • I don’t believe GetHomeItis is a matter of not believing forecasts etc. The fact people had sought shelter after seeing conditions firsthand and THEN tried to go back out tells us that.

      It’s quite a psychological syndrome having to do with a plan that gets into the brain and what happens when we are faced with a disruption to what has been imprinted.

      • MikeB

        Reminds me of horses running into a burning barn, the flee to safety.

  • Rob

    Even when you have a finely honed and acute sense of mortality, GetHomeitis – or GetTo The South Dakota Rellies Place For Christmasitis, or Get To Work For That Make Or Break Presentationitis, or Whateveritis – still tends to win out.

    I’ve ended up in the ditch in a snowstorm a time or two (stayed upright, and had an AWD SUV, so made it back onto the road), because the rellies and the in-laws just wouldn’t understand if my wife and I told them we weren’t coming because of the weather…

    I think this whole “We’re tough Minnesotans; who’s afraid of a little snow” mentality also factors into GetHomeitis.

    • QuietBlue

      It’s our version of “I’m not evacuating, hurricane or not”.

  • Mike Worcester

    How much discretion do local/state officials have in sending a bill to those who have to be rescued after driving on roads listed as officially closed? For example, up in the Red RIver Valley if you drive around those barricades used to close the interstate, you can be fined.

  • Josh Ruhnke

    I cancelled a weekend trip to northern WI this weekend to avoid a case of get home-itis on Sunday.

  • Ben Chorn

    You forgot the St Cloud State University Men’s Hockey team…

    They won the regular season title in Omaha and got stuck trying to get home. Ended up in a jail.


    • I didn’t forget ’em. I just didn’t single them out.

    • Jack

      Jails are great retreats for drivers who stay on the road too long, thinking they can get through.

      I got the pleasure of the corner cell bunk when I was a kid when dad thought he could make it further on a Nebraska road. I would say gethomeitis was definitely at play.

      I vowed to never do anything that would put me behind bars again.

  • Robert Kupec

    As a meteorologist I am concerned about the way we have cheapened a blizzard warning. Blizzard warnings get issued all the time for events that are not true blizzards. So people go out in them and get by, then when a real one happens, like this weekend, they think, oh I made it through the last one, I’ll be OK. Several years ago the weather service did away with a host of warnings and advisories, most of them were not needed. The one they did away with though that was useful, was the Blowing Snow Advisory. Events that would have been Blowing Snow advisories are now Blizzards. People have lost respect for a true Blizzard Warning.

    • Isn’t there a specific standard for the NWS when issuing a blizzard warning?

      But, yeah, “I made it before” is data that gets exaggerated when evaluating risk.

      • Robert Kupec

        Yes, it is supposed to be sustained winds of 35 mph or more for 3 hours and visibility of 1/4 or less. I’m in the Red River Valley and we were under a blizzard warning all day, but never met the criteria. But for sure outside of town, it was not a day to be on the roads and one interstate was closed here. They really need another tool in their warning tool box.

        • Postal Customer

          I don’t think they need another type of warning. That only confuses people.

          Blizzard = don’t travel. That’s pretty simple.

    • Barton

      It is still strange to me that blizzard doesn’t necessarily mean “a crap ton of snow with sustained high winds.” That’s what I always thought it meant growing up. We didn’t get much snow yesterday (though I live in the Cities, and other areas certainly did), but man – did we have the winds and blowing snow.

  • jwest8

    I get major bad road anxiety that overcomes all the “itis”.

  • It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re stupid

    I don’t believe that for one second.

    • Jeff

      Yeah, this just feels like “culling the herd” by self-selection to me.

  • Brian Simon

    I recall one time, as a boy, we drove from chicago up to central Wisconsin, in the sheboygan area. Under normal conditions, a 3 hr drive. In my recollection, there was not snow on the ground when we left; we being my father, brother and me. As we drove north, in a u-haul filled to capacity, conditions deteriorated. Roads became slippery. Blowing snow impeded visibility. Truck issues kept our speed down (which dad later attributed to saving us, ironically). We pressed on. We could’ve – should’ve – stopped. I don’t fully recall, but suspect conditions weren’t so bad in milwaukee, 50 miles out. At some point though, they got really bad. Now, on 57 there aren’t a whole lot of places to stop between milwaukee & plymouth; there certainly weren’t in the early 80s. So we pressed on. Things were definitely bad in plymouth, just 5 miles from home. Should we have stopped there? Maybe. But we’d made it that far, were almost there, so pressed on. While we made it, it was likely a dumb move. In hindsight though, it’s hard to pinpoint when we should have stopped.

    For long stretches between here & des moines, or sioux falls, there are long stretches between exits. If you make the wrong choice, there aren’t many u-turn options. I don’t understand the folks who tried to leave a shelter after needing refuge. By I have a little sympathy for people who found theselves in worse conditions than they expected.

    • Barton

      We once got the joy of spending Spring Break in a truck stop along the PA Turnpike (trying to head “home” to Missouri from Bucks Cty). I admit I thought it was a lot of fun (I was in 5th grade) to be spending the night in a HoJo and having breakfast, lunch and dinner in the truck stops diner. Looking back, my parents were quite freaked. And the poor dog was kept in the cage/crate in the hotel the entire time….

  • Charlie Hurd

    It’s the cry wolf phenomena from the media. They overhype so many storms that people don’t really believe them when the real thing comes.

    • That still doesn’t explain why people who just sought shelter from it tried to go back out in it.

    • Rob

      Meh. I can’t recall the last time a winter storm or blizzard warning was declared, yet the forecasted event did not transpire.

      I do agree that the media tend to be fixated on weather clusterf¢¡ks, such that there’s tons of coverage, but that’s a way different thing.

      • And when the media runs a weather story — this website for instance — it will be the most viewed story of the day within SECONDS of being posted. That fact seems to suggest that people aren’t desensitized by the hype. They’re consuming it in greater quantities than ever.

  • Mike Worcester
    • jon

      I want pictures!

  • Guest

    THIS is why Dad told me to always travel on the top half of the gas tank in winter. A night in the ditch with a warm car is way different than a cold car out of gas.

  • Al
  • asiljoy

    I’ve played that game and it was directly related to get-here-today-or-you’re-out-of-a-job-itis. Today I would probably tell the manager to jump in a lake, but at the time I don’t think it ever registered with me that anything worse than falling in a ditch might happen.

  • Jeff

    I would like to point out it’s about a month to Opening Day at Target Field. I’m not sure who will throw out the first snowball.

  • AmiSchwab

    isn’t there anyone around who lived through the blizzards in the 70’s?
    the super bowl blizzard of 1975 a person couldn’t even leave the house for a day and a half let alone drive around in a car. high tech no common sense.

    • Barton

      what I remember about that blizzard was the BEST sledding ever! And that the neighbors in the cul-de-sac built a 2 story snow fortress with a slide. Best. Winter. Ever.

  • AL287

    About 12 years ago I was working a temporary job as a chart abstractor which required me to visit sites within 100 miles of my home.

    I was at the St. Cloud Hospital and blizzard conditions were expected in the Mille Lacs area the next day and there was no way I was going to drive to the hospital there.

    The supervisor in Maryland was insisting I had to go. I promptly informed her that when the state police tell you to stay off the road, you stay off the road. It will have to wait until road and weather conditions improve.

    For the last several weeks I’ve been trying to get to La Crescent to see my grandson and celebrate my son’s birthday but the weather has been rotten. We have both agreed to play it by ear until winter eases it’s grip.

    We’re hoping it will happen the second weekend in March but that too might have to be postponed.

    It’s not worth it to get stranded in single digit temps out in the middle of nowhere.

    This will definitely be a winter for the history books.

  • Frank

    I recall a winter drive home to Saint Paul from Two Harbors about 15 years ago. The snow was to start about noon, right when we’d be leaving. There aren’t a lot of places to stop between here and Duluth, and that was on my mind, with Ma and 4 kids in the diaper wagon.

    Mostly it was just slow, and not terribly treacherous. It’s amazing how many people from the Metro head to Duluth on the weekend, even in the winter. There was so much traffic, I figured that with slow, safe driving, we’d be fine. Plus, there was no real fear of getting stranded given how much traffic there was. The weather was nothing like southern MN last weekend though, not even close.

    If I had it to do over again, I guess I’d have tried to have plenty of snacks in the vehicle and left before we had lunch to get ahead of the snow. An army travels on it’s stomach, and so does a family with young kids. An empty tummy is not conducive to patience.

    So maybe when traveling in the winter, it’s probably best to bring enough supplies for an extra day. Especially for the young ‘uns.