Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Snowbound for 13 Hours (or: The Worst LSD Trip Ever) -- as shared by an ever grateful Paulette Jacobsmeier

Paulette Jacobsmeier's back Mini Cooper is in
the left lane near the top of this photo.
Paulette Jacobsmeier is a smart, accomplished businesswoman. She makes her living helping to settle personal injury lawsuits, so she's acutely aware of risks and consequences. As a self-described "tough Iowa chick," she has long experienced Mother Nature at her most diabolical. And as Chicago's near-record "Blizzard of 2011" began touching down during the afternoon of Tuesday, February 1, her downtown office offered a great vantage point to see the storm's developing impact, even on nearby expressways.

Far from oblivious, Paulette didn't feel compelled to leave work until shortly after 5:00pm, had no problems making a routine stop at a post office and still doesn't feel foolish for her choice to take Lake Shore Drive, her regular route home to Rogers Park (on Chicago's far north side).

"Once I got on Lake Shore Drive, it was slow going, and the wind was really whipping off the lake, but we were moving," Paulette told me this morning, a week later. "Perhaps I could have been more aware of how treacherous LSD might be, but in discussing the drive home with colleagues, no one expressed undue concern."

Her commute typically lasts 30-45 minutes. After getting on the Drive at 5:30pm on Feb. 1, Paulette Jacobsmeier didn't arrive home until 6:40am on Feb. 2 ...without her car, with which she didn't reunite until the evening of Friday, Feb. 4.

Paulette and I share a close mutual  friend, Paolo Palazzi-Xirinachs, and I had met her at a party last Halloween. We weren't connected on Facebook until last Thursday--after Paolo had relayed that she was one of those who had gotten stuck on LSD, one of the most harrowing repercussions (and likely lasting images) of the blizzard--so I didn't know she had been posting updates in real time. But reading back through them was still incredibly compelling and in addition to talking to me about her experience, Paulette kindly allowed me to share her posts here.

Saying that she considers what happened something of a 'Perfect Storm,' Paulette notes that it wasn't the snow, waves or wind in themselves that left her and nearly 1,000 other motorists stranded, but a series of accidents up ahead in Lake Shore Drive's northbound lanes.

Photo by Paulette Jacobsmeier
"I didn't specifically know about it as it happened, but the bus accident at Belmont is what really brought everything to a standstill" says Paulette, who would spend most of the night in her black Mini Cooper, stalled just north of the North Avenue footbridge. "Certainly, I thought of trying to get off the Drive, but we were bumper-to-bumper, so there was never really an opportunity.

"At 8:00, I had stopped moving. By 8:30, when about 6 to 8 inches of snow had drifted onto the cars around me in just a half-hour, I was pretty convinced we weren't going to move again. And we didn't."

As you can see, Paulette's Facebook posts were becoming steadily more concerned--and concerning--but she says that her Friends provided vital support...and more. [Note: I'm not sharing the Comments to her posts, both for space and privacy reasons, but there were many heartwarming responses to everything Paulette expressed.]

"I usually don't post often to Facebook, but I'm so glad that I did. I never felt alone and there were even practical benefits. A friend of mine called her sister, who lives in a building overlooking the Drive. She called me and was able to provide a bird's eye view, so I had a better idea of what was going on, or if help seemed to be on the way."

It wasn't until 10:30pm that Paulette first spoke to an on-site firefighter, who told her that 'help would come in a half-hour.'

With a full tank of gas, a warm car and friends keeping her company via her fully-charged smart phone, Paulette was relatively secure, although understandably frightened, as that "half-hour" turned into five additional hours before she was told to leave her car and board a warming bus.

Even today, she sounded much more relieved and grateful than angry or bitter, and I greatly admire her positive outlook. Still, she can't help but wonder if things might have been handled a bit better.

"I know it was a crazy situation, and to their credit, the firemen who helped me and others, candidly admitted there wasn't really a clear plan. So I'm extremely glad it turned out well," Paulette assessed. "But do I think they could have gotten to us sooner? I do. Early on, there were snow plows and salt trucks in the southbound lanes. So I'd like to think they could have brought in buses and gotten us out of our cars a lot earlier."

As it turned out, even after being safely removed from her car after 10 hours of being stuck in it, Paulette's night didn't get any easier.

Following her rescue by firefighters, one of whom walked with her to the warming bus, only to mutually fall into a snow drift--"I looked up at him and managed to wryly say, 'this is ridiculous,' and he agreed"--for whatever reason, hundreds of frazzled citizens who were heading northbound on Lake Shore Drive were taken to Malcolm X College, located near the United Center on Chicago's West Side.

There weren't enough cots for all those stranded and after about 15 minutes, Paulette and a group of fellow refugees walked to the Blue Line 'L', which was relatively full of shift workers heading in on a Wednesday morning when many area employees would stay home. Paulette then switched to the Red Line and rode it to Howard, normally a nice 15 minute walk to her Rogers Park home.

It was the worst part of a calamitous night, as Paulette began to wonder "if I was going to make it" in the midst of a blizzard that would drop 20.2" inches officially and feature some of the harshest blowing snow in memory. There were no cabs at the Howard station, and not many cars on the street as she soldiered home. "As a runner, I did what runners do. I counted down the blocks."

"At 6:40am, I walked in my door and started sobbing."

It's clear in talking to Paulette that her car was never her major concern, even in the subsequent days. Although it seemed a bit silly to her that license plates weren't recorded and tracked, resulting in a fruitless search on Thursday night, she says after surviving the experience largely in tact, her attitude about her Mini was, "I'll find it when I find it."

Still, once we had connected on Facebook, I was quite happy when I saw her Facebook post on Friday night.

Quite a story; one that I'm grateful isn't my own but just as grateful didn't wind up worse for Paulette, or seemingly most others who were among the most visible victims of Snowmageddon. For her part, Paulette says the experience left her shaken and emotional, but that she's doing well both physically and mentally.

In a world where people can't stop grouching about minor contrivances--heck, I whined about being stuck inside my safe, warm condo during the snowstorm--what's remarkable to me isn't just Paulette Jacobsmeier's perseverance, but her perspective. During our hourlong conversation, she not only was entirely open, but effusively grateful to the firefighters who extracted her and others from LSD, to the numerous friends who kept her upbeat during the ordeal and to the workers at the Soldier Field parking lot where she retrieved her car--"they cleared off my car, had jumper cables & tow trucks at the ready and were just extremely nice."

In summation, Paulette suggests:

"If you come out of a 13-hour ordeal like this with only a tiny bit of frostbite on your feet--despite having worn kitten-heeled boots to work that day--I think you're pretty lucky."

I'm glad you were, Paulette. Thanks for sharing your story; let's hope it never happens again. And if anyone deserves a trip to Florida, it's you.

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