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Stranded drivers find welcome at Jefferson County hotels, homes

The last portions of Route 81 between Watertown and North Syracuse are open again, after lake-effect storms closed much of the highway down.

Through the storms, hardy North Country natives have been helping stranded travelers. Many people spent last night in fire halls - the one in Adams took in 150 people. Watertown hotels right off the Interstate 81 exit were full, of both drivers and staff who couldn't get out, either.

Credit Catherine Loper / WRVO
A New York State Department of Transportation truck blocking the northbound exit to I-81 in Adams.

At the Comfort Inn in Watertown, Front Desk Manager Becca Minas calls the last 48 hours "pleasantly hectic." She said out-of-towners not used to extreme North Country snowfalls were simply baffled by the idea that white powder could close an Interstate.

"They're just dumbfounded. And when people go to leave in the morning and I tell them, 'I'm sorry, but the Interstate is still closed.' 'Well, what do you mean? 'The Interstate is still closed. I don't know how else to explain it to you. You're not allowed on the road. You can get a ticket.' And begrudgingly, they decide to stay."

Minas says about 128 of the hotel's 135 rooms were full last night. That's about 100 more than usual this time of year. Even though she lives in Watertown, Minas spent the night at the hotel so she could handle anything that came up. She also put up staff who couldn't make it home, and they worked again today when other workers couldn't come in.

The hotel doesn't have a full restaurant, so food has been a bit of a challenge. Minas says the hotel was stocked up for breakfast, with everyone pitching in to provide other meals.

"We had a really nice guest who had a four by four and he made it out to the nearest grocery store and came back with cases of Ramen noodles that he shared with everyone. And then the lady who brought in her soup from her camper trailer and we heated that up and we all ate that. And I brought in my Christmas cookies and my fudge. We just – we hunkered down, we did what it took."

With Interstate 81 reopened at 2 p.m., people are finally heading out.

In hard-hit Adams, the fire hall took in about 150 people overnight. Local restaurants donated sandwiches and pizza, and movies and board games kept everyone busy. When the department posted a Facebook notice asking for local residents to shelter more travelers, many opened their spare bedrooms and couches to strangers. Stranded travelers in Adams and Watertown say they made the best of the situation by getting to know each other.