A massive winter storm that swept into western Montana late Thursday wreaked havoc on Friday travel and weekend plans.
In Helena, all after school and weekend activities were canceled, various arts and culture events were postponed and driving visibility was frequently reduced to zero throughout the day.
Kent Kultgen, superintendent of Helena public schools, said all canceled activities will be rescheduled for early next week.
The weather canceled all basketball games for both Helena and Capital High Schools, the Staggering Ox canceled their usual Friday music and the Poetry Out Loud event scheduled for Friday was postponed until March 8.
The city of Helena planned for numerous extra plow operators throughout the weekend to provide coverage for a total of 16 hours each day.
“Monday morning, March 3, we will start the morning with four operators at 4 a.m. and we will add three more operators at 7 a.m.,” said Ben Sautter, superintendent of streets and traffic, in an email. “The afternoon shift will be at 1 p.m., and we will have three more operators available. We are planning to have the operators run 10- to 12-hour shifts if necessary.
“The rest of the week may be the same schedule as we expect it to take most of the week to catch up to this weekend storm,” the email said. “We were planning to begin snow removal operations for the downtown area Monday evening, March 3, but that has been canceled due to the predicted snow this weekend.”
Elsewhere, school closings were reported in Missoula and Mineral counties and numerous stretches of road were reported to have “severe driving conditions.”
The designation of “severe driving conditions” is one step before a road closure, Brandi Hamilton with the Montana Department of Transportation, said.
“It’s typically the result of a combination of conditions,” she said. “The real nemesis is blowing and drifting snow.”
According to the Montana Highway Patrol website, there were 17 crashes, slideoffs or traffic hazards in Lewis and Clark County between Thursday afternoon and Friday at noon.
Throughout the weekend, motorists can visit www.mdt511.com to check road conditions, closures and weather radar drivers or download MDT’s mobile app, which features text alerts and a real-time interactive map.
Thursday night, MDOT closed Interstate 15 between the Lincoln Road interchange north to the Sieben Flat’s exit at mile marker 216. The closure was in effect from about 10:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Visibility at the time was at zero, said Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton.
As driving conditions continued to deteriorate Friday, Dutton urged drivers to use caution.
“Please anticipate these traffic restrictions and reduce your traveling speed,” Dutton said in a text message. “MDOT snow plows are on duty, but their demand is high.”
This storm is expected to dump about 8 inches of snow in the Helena Valley with more than a foot in the mountains, said Megan Vandenheuvel with the National Weather Service.
Winds are much higher west of the Continental Divide with gusts between 20 and 30 mph, Vandenheuvel said. In the Helena Valley residents can expect wind gusts up to 15 mph throughout the storm.