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'I had to eat snow' | Storm in Japan strands thousands in traffic jam

A hard-hitting storm system unleashed a multi-day heavy snow event across portions of Japan this week.
Credit: Shohei Miyano/Kyodo News via AP
Vehicles are stranded in the snow on an express way in Muikamachi, Niigata prefecture, northern Japan, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Heavy snow hit areas of northern Japan on Thursday, causing several hundred vehicles stranded on the road and power outages in some regions.

A hard-hitting storm system unleashed a multi-day heavy snow event across portions of Japan this week, leaving some prefectures covered in daunting amounts of snow, and thousands of motorists stuck in an enormous traffic jam.

Beginning Monday and continuing for much of the week, rounds of heavy snow and very cold conditions targeted portions of western and northern Honshu. Prefectures along the Sea of Japan experienced the heaviest snow as abundant moisture flowed inland and met very cold air.

One such prefecture hit especially hard was Niigata, located along the Sea of Japan.

In Niigata, the city of Tsunan received 37 inches of snow from Monday to Tuesday. Of that snowfall total, 26 inches fell over the course of just 18 hours. Another round of heavy snow took aim at the region on Wednesday evening and led to major traffic issues.

Heavy snow caused a massive traffic jam on a section of the Kanetsu Expressway, an expressway that connects Tokyo to the Niigata Prefecture. This traffic jam began on Wednesday evening in Niigata when a tractor-trailer got stuck in rapidly accumulating snowfall. Vehicles that were forced to stop behind the stranded truck quickly found themselves trapped as well as heavy snow quickly overwhelmed the region.

According to the operator of the expressway, the East Nippon Expressway Company (NEXCO East), during the peak of the gridlock on Thursday, traffic stretched up to 10 miles from the point of the incident and involved as many as 2,100 vehicles. Many vehicles stranded overnight Wednesday and Thursday remained stuck through Friday afternoon.

Crews were dispatched to provide food, fuel, blankets and portable toilets to the motorists trapped on the expressway, Japan Today reported.

People were forced to spend hours in their cars, and some had to be evacuated to hospitals due to the inhospitable conditions outside, Kyodo News reported.

As crews worked to free the stranded motorists, they did so amid brutal cold with sub-freezing temperatures reported in the area.

NEXCO East issued a statement on Friday morning that less than 100 cars had yet to be freed from the snow. A correction, and an apology, was quickly issued by the operators as it turned out their count was off by about 900 vehicles.

"On the [line bound for Tokyo], when we checked the site again, about 1,000 stagnant vehicles were confirmed ... [we] apologize for the inadequate understanding of the situation and the confusion caused to our customers," said NEXCO East in a press release on Friday afternoon.

One thousand vehicles remained stranded as of Friday morning.

Aerial footage from the scene showed a line of stranded vehicles stretching back possibly a mile or more. One man was seen in news footage saying there was nothing to eat or drink for the extended period of time he was stranded. "I was really in trouble," he said, according to the BBC. "I had to eat snow."

The effort to free vehicles trapped in the heavy snow involved the use of heavy machinery and also an abundance of physical labor. Workers could be seen digging vehicles out one-by-one with shovels.

By Friday afternoon, local time, 670 vehicles remained trapped, Kyodo News reported.

Heavy snow continued to fall across portions of Japan on Friday, but crews working to free trapped vehicles were able to make significant progress.

The last of the stranded vehicles on the Kanetsu Expressway was finally freed from the snow at 10:15 p.m. JST, according to NEXCO East. The company also confirmed that a significant portion of the expressway will remain closed overnight Friday as crews work to remove all remaining snow.

The Kanetsu Expressway was not the only roadway in the area that encountered significant gridlock due to heavy snow this week. The Joshinetsu Expressway, located just to the west of the Kanetsu Expressway, was similarly impacted by heavy snow. Around 300 vehicles were stranded on the expressway from Wednesday to Thursday morning.

Snow will remain a concern for much of Japan through the weekend. However, snowfall rates look to remain rather tame as compared to earlier this week, with extremely heavy snow less likely. As the system that triggered this multi-day snow event weakens and pushes east early next week, dry weather will return to much of the country for the middle of next week.