Patti Holden was just trying to get some last-minute shopping done for dinner and Christmas presents with her husband and three-year-old granddaughter ahead of the holiday weekend.
Instead, she and dozens of others got more than they bargained for on Friday, when a massive snowstorm made the roads completely impassable and stranded them overnight at a Walmart in Chatham, Ont.
“I felt like I was in one of those Christmas movies where you’re all stuck in a store on Christmas Eve,” Ms. Holden said.
Roughly 49 shoppers and 48 store staff turned the big-box store into a shelter after police shut down nearby roads and worked with Walmart to take in stranded travellers. The store provided blow-up mattresses, blankets and pillows for people forced to spend the night there, and put out chicken strips, chicken wings and potato wedges from the store’s hot table to keep everyone fed.
Ms. Holden said the mood was a little panicked at first, but people calmed down when staff made it clear that everyone would be given care. In a way, there couldn’t be a better place to be stuck than a fully stocked department store.
“People were coming in at all hours because they were stuck in their cars, and slowly word travelled that you could get warm at Walmart,” she said.
“Every staff member was amazing. At any given time, you had someone helping you. They all stayed overnight and kept in touch with the police as much as they could.”
As of Saturday morning, roughly 30 people were able to get home when they were picked up by friends with four-wheel-drive trucks, while others without capable cars were still stranded.
Store manager Judy Lagasse said the store settled into a festive atmosphere after staff had been able to set the tone that people would be cared for as they stayed.
Staff even put on a small birthday celebration for one person, complete with cake from the bakery. Other workers brought in a speaker to play Christmas music, while kids were given crayons and colouring paper, and adults were given board games. Ms. Holden’s granddaughter was allowed to walk around the store and pretend to shop.
Workers wheeled around large grey bins that usually hold cardboard to distribute pillows and blankets, and people filled up the checkout area with mattresses.
“We spent quality time with our customers. We had some laughs, shared some stories. It was overall a really great experience,” said Ms. Lagasse, who said she felt the store was able to turn a bad situation into a good one.
“There were a lot of unanswered questions because we didn’t know how long it was going to last, but we tried to tackle the anxiety together.”
But while the in-store experience was positive, Ms. Lagasse and Ms. Holden said some people were sheltering from a genuinely dangerous situation outside. Ms. Lagasse said there was a large pileup on the road outside the Walmart, and Ms. Holden said one person trudged into the store after crashing into a ditch.
The road to Walmart crosses open fields where massive snow drifts were blowing in from gusts that Environment Canada said were around 80 kilometres an hour. Windchill temperatures reached -30 C.
Ms. Holden said she recently moved to town and didn’t realize that the stretch of road leading to Walmart could get so bad in a storm. They tried to head home from the store twice on Friday afternoon, only to find the roads impassable – even for their four-wheel-drive truck.
Navigating the parking lot was also treacherous: some cars were perched on top of curbs they hadn’t seen because of how high the snow had accumulated.
“You were just driving into walls of snow, and you didn’t know how bad it would get,” Ms. Holden said.
At first, police had told the family they’d have to hunker down in their truck, leading them to worry about what would happen when their gas ran out. They were thankful when they heard they could shelter in Walmart.
Ms. Lagasse said there were also people stranded there from out of town, such as a mother and her son who were en route to Toronto from Wisconsin before they got stuck.
The store manager said police are hoping that the roads will be sufficiently cleared for people to leave at some point on Saturday, as roughly 20 people remained sheltered in the morning.
Ms. Holden, however, was not one of them, as she was finally able to make it home when road conditions were good enough for their truck.
Christmas will not be the same for her household this year: it’ll be her first time spending the holiday without all her kids after two of her sons were unable to make it from Kitchener because of the weather.
But she will have one son and his family over for a turkey dinner – just without the fixings, as a result of her interrupted shopping experience on Friday.
“It’s definitely making the best of a bad situation,” she said.