Biggest snowstorm in two years blankets region, hobbling commute

Snow shoveling
Jean Bohlinger shovels snow from the sidewalk in front of his daughter's house, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Winona, Minn.
AP Photo/Winona Daily News, Joe Ahlquist

More than 16 inches of snow fell across parts of Minnesota as part of a winter storm that closed roads, caused hundreds of crashes and delayed commutes.

Snowplows are clearing the streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which both declared their first snow emergencies of the winter. More than 8 inches of snow was reported by observers in St. Paul, and nearly 12 inches in north Minneapolis.

Public schools are open in both cities. But Minneapolis school officials warned buses may be running late in that city because of road conditions there.

Roads across southwestern Minnesota are starting to reopen this morning after whiteout conditions took plows off the road overnight.

WEATHER LINKS
• Snow Emergencies: Minneapolis | St. Paul
• MnDOT: Statewide road conditions
• Weather Service: snowfall totals
• Twitter: Your storm tweets and photos #tellmpr
• Today's Question: Happy with the snow?

Highways including U.S. 75 and U.S. 212 west between the Twin Cities and the South Dakota border were covered with snow early in the weekend storm, but were closed starting early Sunday afternoon, according to MnDOT spokesman T.J. Melcher, in Willmar.

"About 2 o'clock the wind started to pick up, and really, that's what created the most hazardous conditions, the snowplows, the drivers not being able to see on the roads because of the whiteout conditions and the heavy blowing snow. And as that wind started to move further north and further east, then they started to close across the district," he said.

Playing in the snow
Chelsea Gerth, left, 9, and Angel Martinez Carbaja, 10, race to grab snow from a picnic table during a snowball fight in the fresh snow, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Winona, Minn.
AP Photo/Winona Daily News, Joe Ahlquist

Instruments in southwest Minnesota recorded wind gusts up to 51 miles per hour Sunday evening, and left many roads in difficult driving condition. Some are still listed as dangerous as of 7:30 this morning, particularly in the area around Granite Falls and Redwood Falls.

MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said that Twin Cities area highways are in improving condition. He said the early snow falling on warm pavement left ice and packed snow on the traffic lanes, and that slippery spots are still scattered around the system. He urged motorists to still exercise caution, particularly around snow equipment out on the roads, because they'll be cleaning up, even after the traffic lanes are clear.

"We're working on cleanup operations today," Gutknechtsaid. "We need to get the shoulders clean, and when you get a foot of snow, there's a lot of snow that needs to be stored someplace, so there's a lot of work that goes into moving that snow and putting it places where it'll be out of the way -- and frankly we have to prepare for whatever the next storm may bring."

State Patrol spokesman Eric Roeske said that there were 637 crashes reported to the patrol between 9:30 p.m. on Saturday and 6 a.m. this morning, not including those handled by local authorities. The incidents included 63 crashes with injuries and a fatal crash, as well. Roeske said there were 1139 vehicle spin outs or left in ditches and reported to the patrol.

MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner said he saw reports of 17.3 inches of snow in Sacred Heart, in Renville County west of the Twin Cities. Lino Lakes reported 16 inches to the National Weather Service. He said it had been 22 months since the last big snowfall reported at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, dating back to February, 2011.

The National Weather Service said the northern edge of the Twin Cities got the most snow, with 16 inches reported in Lino lakes, 14 inches reported in Falcon Heights. Osceola, Wisconsin and Forest Lake both reported 13 and a half inches of snowfall last night.

TOP 10 SNOWFALL TOTALS

This table shows snowfall totals from noon Sunday to 7:30 a.m. Monday across the region as reported to Iowa State University's Mesonet network. Click here to see the complete table.

CENTRAL MINNESOTA DIGS OUT

In Central Minnesota, the snow started late Saturday and continued until well after dark on Sunday in places. The National Weather Service said 16 inches of snow fell in Lino Lakes, and more than 15 inches of snow in Hugo, Isanti and Ham Lake.

Winter traffic
Motorists and pedestrians make their way along snow covered St. Germain Street, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in St. Cloud, Minn.
AP Photo/The St. Cloud Times, Jason Wachter

More than a foot of snow fell from west of Marshall, north to Rush City, south to Red Wing as far east as Menomonie, Wis. during the storm, according to totals reported to the National Weather Service.

The Forest Lake, Cambridge-Isanti, Hudson, Wis., school districts cancelled classes today, and dozens of smaller districts and charter schools either closed or moved their starts back by two hours this morning.

Some colleges also changed class scheduled because of the weather, including Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Ridgewater College in Willmar and Minnesota West Community and Technical College's campuses in Granite Falls, Pipestone and Canby.

Road conditions are toughest in western and southwestern Minnesota, where the Minnesota Department of Transportation started closing roads about 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon. MnDOT spokesman T.J. Melcher in Wilmar said that while the area didn't get as much snow as the Twin Cities, rising wind created white out conditions even on roads that were open.

"There's a lot of heavy snow compaction, a lot of icy patches, and really there's a lot of vehicles that are stuck on those roads out there... Some highways they're waiting on getting those vehicles removed," Melcher said.

He said that some roads were reopening as of 6 o'clock this morning, as plows are able to clear them. "The driving conditions are very difficult. If you don't have to travel, it's best not to," Melcher said.

CITY TRANSPORTATION ISSUES

In the Twin Cities, MetroTransit is reminding people to consider all the transportation alternatives for their morning commute.

Snow plows at work
A snow plow clears off Old Homer Road, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, near Winona, Minn.
AP Photo/Winona Daily News, Joe Ahlquist

Spokesman John Siqveland said rail service is running normally, buses are slightly behind schedule, and people should check schedules and take an earlier trip if possible.

He also urged riders waiting at stops to make sure bus drivers can see them around the piles of snow.

"Maybe wear bright clothes or bring a flashing light if you have one of those. Bus operators can pull into intersections on days where we have a lot of snow. So you can, when you make contact with the bus, just sort of make your way into the intersection and board safely there," he said.

MetroTransit is posting updates on its website, on twitter, and on Facebook. They also have a phone app for real-time bus information.

Around 150 flights at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were canceled due to the storm, airport spokesman Pat Hogan said, but he said crews were able to keep at least one runway open. Hogan added airport officials hope Monday's flight schedule will be close to normal.

"One of the biggest unknowns is the wind -- the wind is supposed to pick up tonight, and that could create some visibility issues for us," said Hogan. "So we're waiting to see what happens with that, but if all goes well, we should be in pretty good shape."

Delta Air Lines, the airport's main carrier, said travelers through the Twin Cities and Duluth could rebook their flights without charge. The Federal Aviation Administration said the snow delayed some flights by an average of about 90 minutes.

HOT VIKINGS GAME

The Twin Cities' heaviest snowfall last winter was 4.2 inches on Dec. 3. The heaviest snows of the winter of 2010-11 were 11.8 inches on Feb. 20, 2011, and 16.3 inches on Dec. 11, 2010.

A Vikings fan dances in the snow
A fan dances outside the Mall of America Field before the NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Minneapolis.
Andy King/ASSOCIATED PRESS

That last storm caused the Metrodome to collapse -- forcing the Vikings to play the final two games of the season elsewhere. The project to restore the inflatable roof cost $22.7 million, and officials there weren't taking chances on a repeat Sunday.

Steve Maki, director of facilities for the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Authority, said they cranked up the heat after Sunday's Vikings-Bears game and planned to keep it that way until the storm passed. He said everything was going well.

"What we don't want to happen is 21 inches in eight hours," Maki said. "We can handle it over 15-16 hours but eight hours gets a little tough sometimes."

Sportswriters who complained about the oppressive postgame heat up in the press box could have had a pretty nice sauna if they splashed some water on the rocks, Maki said jokingly.

The Metrodome looked only about three-quarters full at kickoff for the sold-out game, and fans streamed in late, with beads of melting snow apparent on everyone's jackets.

Adrian Peterson rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns and Harrison Smith returned an interception for a score to lead the Vikings to a 21-14 victory over the free-falling Bears.

Rupa Shenoy contributed to this report.

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