FARGO — The blasting winds reached Fargo about 3 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, sending the wind chill factor to about minus 40 degrees.
The tent Jay Thoreson was sleeping in collapsed shortly thereafter.
"That was the sign for us to go," said Thoreson, donor relations manager at the New Life Center, a rescue mission and homeless shelter in north Fargo where Thoreson and other shelter staff attempted to spend the night in tents as a way of raising awareness about homelessness and also drawing attention to Giving Hearts Day, which this year falls on Thursday, Feb. 13.
Area nonprofit groups rely on Giving Hearts Day to help them raise funds they need to operate. The New Life Center's Giving Hearts Day goal is $750,000.
Though Thoreson works with homeless people on a daily basis, he said his experience in the tent brought the plight of those served by the New Life Center into cold, sharp focus. So much so it was decided that a second night of camping outside the shelter, planned for Wednesday, was nixed in the interest of safety.
Thoreson said having a choice in where one wants to sleep is a luxury the people who come to the shelter do not have. He said such uncertainty extends beyond the nighttime hours.
"It's also about, 'Where am I going to eat? Where am I going to spend the day tomorrow?''' Thoreson said.
The cold that hit the Fargo-Moorhead area early Wednesday brought with it blizzard conditions created by light snow and high winds, which gusted to 50 mph and dropped wind chills to 25-45 below zero.
Many area schools called off Wednesday classes, and highways in the region were closed but eventually re-opened later in the day. Cold temps and dangerous wind chills were expected to remain in the Red River Valley through Friday morning.
A chilly turn
When conditions changed early Wednesday they did so abruptly.
The temperature in Fargo fell 40 degrees — from 29 to minus 11 over the course of seven hours, according to John Wheeler, chief meteorologist for WDAY-TV.
The wind chill went from 19 to minus 41, a drop of 60, all between 3 a.m. and 10 a.m. Wednesday, according to Wheeler, who added that at 3 a.m. Wednesday winds in Fargo were out of the west at about 8 mph.
An hour later, he said, the wind was out of the north at 36 mph, gusting to 43 mph.
As of mid-afternoon Wednesday, peak gusts had reached 53 mph in Fargo and 58 mph in Grand Forks, according to Wheeler, who said new snow amounted to two-tenths of an inch.
"Most of this is old snow that was loosened and became airborne by the wind, a true ground blizzard," Wheeler said of Wednesday's flurries, adding that a similar blizzard in 1984 resulted in the deaths of four people on 19th Avenue North, after which blizzard gates were installed on 19th Avenue North.
"The most infamous ground blizzard in the Red River Valley's history was in March 1941 on a Saturday evening," Wheeler added.
"One inch of snow. Wind gusting to 85 mph. Seventy-two deaths in the Red River Valley. Forecasting and communication was not very good then," and the storm struck without warning, Wheeler said.
Rob Swiers, executive director of the New Life Center, said that as he and others were preparing to spend Tuesday night in tents outside the homeless shelter a client of the shelter asked what they were doing.
He said he told the man they were doing it in order to help him and others like him.
The individual teared up, gave Swiers a man-hug and told him, "That is real love," Swiers said, describing it as "a real moment."
'Sense of safety is gone'
Shelter staff members Zach Wigginton and Kris Fraser said they made it to the early hours of Wednesday before they decided to abandon the tents for the security and warmth of home.
Fraser said as she tried to fall asleep amid the cold and outdoor sounds of the neighborhood all around her she was struck by how vulnerable it made her feel. "That sense of safety is gone," she said.
Wigginton said he shared a tent with a resident of the shelter who asked to be included in the activity.
He said the unfamiliarity of the situation and being in the company of someone he didn't know very well made sleep difficult.
He said it also made him feel for residents of the shelter, who face such challenges every night.
"I was exhausted. I didn't get much sleep," he said.