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Community cared for many travelers during massive snowfall

Jennifer Gaffney

Travelers got back on the road yesterday afternoon after Interstate 81 reopened following the massive snowfall. Many spent an unexpected night in the north country – some in hotels, some in fire halls, some in the homes of strangers. The experience might have been a lousy advertisement for the climate here, but natives seemed to be at their best as Good Samaritans during the storm.

Adams seemed to be the center of the polar vortex, with about four feet of snowfall in 48 hours. When semi trucks were kicked off the interstate and Route 11, they ended up parked everywhere, clogging the roadways.

The fire hall was packed, too. “Our rec room was full and our bingo hall was full,” said Adams mayor Philip Chatterton. “I think people slept in the hallway, even.” 

About 150 people slept on cots Tuesday night. The department had to borrow some from the Red Cross. Chatterton had one word for the scene: “Crazy! But we had fun. Some of them were playing cards, and we got the board games out, and they got the big-screen TV going.”

When the fire department put out a call for help on Facebook, many Adams residents opened their homes to strangers.  Jennifer Gaffney took in five stranded motorists. Her three-year-old appreciated all the company. “She had every person that was here read her books, and she had to play in her room with all of (them). She had everybody wrapped around her finger,” Gaffney said.

Her kids liked the idea of helping people, she said. And she had a good time, too. “It was just a really nice opportunity to get to know some random people,” Gaffney said. “We spent the evening talking and just getting to know strangers. So it was a very nice time.”

Even at the hotels, some of the hospitality was personal. Becca Minas manages the front desk at the Comfort Inn in Watertown. The place doesn’t have a restaurant, so everyone pitched in for meals.

“I had my husband bring in some potatoes and chicken and sausages, and I brought in everything I had at the house when I came into work the day before, so that I’d have stuff to cook for the guests and my staff,” Minas said. “And then we had more guests bring in more stuff and we heated that up, too. So it was just one big, Comfort family, I think.”

Tom Schwahn, from Potsdam, was one of Minas’s guests. He was in Watertown for an annual work conference. But with the first days of it canceled, he ended up getting to know his fellow stranded travelers. “A lot of people are downstairs socializing,” he said. “It’s nice to see people come together, you know?”

Gaffney, the Adams resident, said her new and sudden friendships lasted beyond one night. The people she hosted checked in with her later in the day as they continued their travels.