Polar temps, heavy winds close schools and roads, strand travelers

Lake Harriet in Minneapolis
High winds and low temperatures and blowing snow made outdoor activities dangerous for the unprepared Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. A woman walking around Lake Harriet in Minneapolis paused to shoot some video of the blowing snow with her cell phone.
Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP

Schools are closed, the University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus has canceled classes, dozens of roads are closed and travelers were stranded Sunday night as another polar deep freeze descended on Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.

Some stranded motorists stayed in National Guard armories.

"About 10 o'clock last night there were about 46 stranded travelers sheltering at the Olivia armory," said Department of Public Safety spokesman Bruce Gordon. "Six stranded travelers were at the Albert Lea armory. And we also understand that the State Patrol have vehicles available in case stranded travelers needed to be reached."

So far, though, the Guard hasn't had to rescue any drivers from the wintry roads.

The small city of Windom in southwestern Minnesota is among the places sheltering motorists with no place to turn in the blowing snow.

About 70 people, forced off the highways in whiteout conditions, stayed overnight at the Business Arts & Recreation Center where the Red Cross set up cots.

Center manager Greg Warner says four ping pong players from Sioux Falls, S.D., who went to a tournament in the Twin Cities, are among the stranded. Three dogs also stayed warm at the center.

Businessman Andy Winstrom says he was on his way from Omaha, Neb., to Minneapolis for a meeting Monday when he was directed off Highway 60 by the State Patrol. Winstrom says as soon as it got dark Sunday night, he couldn't see the highway because of blowing snow.

PLOWS FORCED OFF ROADS

The Minnesota Department of Transportation pulled plows from some western Minnesota highways overnight, but conditions improved after the winds started to die down after midnight. There are still dozens of roads closed and MnDOT says drivers should use caution even in the Metro area. Extreme cold and blowing snow will make for slippery spots on roads around the state this morning.

The closures stretch from north of Thief River Falls, down the Red River Valley and southeast to Albert Lea. They include Interstate 90 west of Albert Lea and Interstate 94 east of Moorhead.

Conditions have improved slightly as the wind has died down since last night, but MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht says the commute will still be difficult.

"In the metro area, crews have been out all night, and we've upgraded that to fair condition, but fair conditions with the caveat that its extremely cold. The extreme cold can cause slippery spots, the blowing can cause slippery spots. So folks if they're going to travel in the Metro area need to slow down, pay attention to the road, and drive according to those conditions," he said.

Blustery Stearns County
An SUV ventures past the St. Augusta, Minn., city limits sign on Stearns County Road 136 in near white-out conditions Sunday afternoon, Jan. 26, 2014 south of St. Cloud, Minn. An unusual weather pattern driving bitterly cold air from the Arctic Circle south across a huge swath of the Midwest is expected to send temperatures plummeting Monday from Minneapolis to Louisville, Ky., the latest punch from a winter that is in some areas shaping up as one of the coldest on record.
Kimm Anderson/St. Cloud Times via AP

TRAINS STOPPED

In the Twin Cities, blowing snow has also halted the Blue Line light rail service between the 28th Avenue station and the Mall of America because of blowing and drifting snow. The agency also says that buses are replacing the last Northstar commuter train into Minneapolis because of earlier delays, caused by frozen switches on the northern end of the rail line.

EXCEL ASKS CUSTOMERS TO CONSERVE

Xcel Energy is telling about 100,000 of its natural gas customers in northwestern Minnesota, eastern North Dakota, and western Wisconsin to conserve energy following a pipeline explosion in Manitoba.

The explosion may have damaged two other TransCanada pipelines, and those were also taken out of service to be examined.

Xcel is asking home and business customers to conserve natural gas by turning their thermostats down to 60 degrees and avoiding the use of gas appliances.

COLD PUSHES PROPANE PRICES UP

Cold weather is driving up prices for propane that's already in short supply in the Upper Midwest, alarming some rural residents who depend on the gas for heating, and forcing the government to scramble to provide some relief.

An analysis this week from the U.S. Energy Information Administration said propane demand has outpaced supply in the Midwest as temperatures fell, with propane inventories dropping by about 12.8 million barrels since Oct. 11.

PERSISTENT SUB-ZERO TEMPS ACROSS REGION

A persistent weather pattern that's driving the Arctic air south will drop temperatures for a few days. Actual temperatures will range from the teens in northern Kentucky to double-digits below zero in Minnesota, but wind chills will be even colder -- minus 43 in Minneapolis, minus 23 in Chicago, minus 18 in Dayton, Ohio, minus 14 in Kansas City, Mo., and minus 3 in Louisville, Ky.

"I'm sick of it," Chicago resident Matt Ryan, 19, said Sunday on his way to his family's home in the suburb of Oak Park.

"I came home to steal a scarf from my parents," he said. Ryan's plan for Monday, when the high is forecast to be a mere minus 4 degrees and the wind chills could dip to 40 below: Dress in layers, carry hand warmers and wear long underwear.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Scott Blair stopped short of calling the latest round of cold part of the polar vortex, a system of winds that circulate around the North Pole.

"There's really nothing abnormal about the air that's coming into the area," he said. "It's just been a very persistent pattern" of cold air.

Blair said it's an amplified pattern of the jet stream, with cold air filtering in behind a large trough of low pressure. Simplifying, he explained: "Troughs are typically associated with unstable or unsettled weather, and, at this time of the year, much colder air."

Frigid temperatures are expected to hold into Tuesday. If Chicago makes it to 60 hours below zero, it will be the longest stretch since 1983 _ when it was below zero for 98 hours _ and the third longest in 80 years.

Chicago Public Schools called off Monday's classes for its nearly 400,000 students, as did suburban districts. Earlier this month, when it was below zero for 36 straight hours, CPS closed for two days.

About 90 miles north of Chicago, Ray Fournelle lamented the weather's ability to keep him from his normal routine of jogging 4 miles a couple of times a week.

When it's gotten bad in the past, the 72-year-old engineering professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee will walk instead. Last weekend was the last time he tried to exercise outside. Monday's forecast calls for a high of 5 below.

"With all the snow and ice on the sidewalks, you just slide around out there. It's just rotten," he said Sunday.

In the northern U.S., North Dakota and South Dakota residents dealt with dangerous cold and wind gusts Sunday that reached up to 60 mph _ blowing snow to the point where it was nearly impossible to travel in some spots. The winds weren't as strong in Indiana, but officials there still restricted vehicle traffic or recommended only essential travel in more than half of its counties.

In Michigan, expressways closed as snow and subfreezing temperatures played a role in multiple crashes Sunday; at least three people died over the weekend because of weather-related accidents.

Business is far from usual this winter for Alex Alfidi, manager at Leo's Coney Island restaurant in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham. His 24-hour restaurant been getting some carryout patrons, but the casual walk-in customers have stayed away.

"We slowed down big time," the 39-year-old said. Alfidi has logged 15 years in Michigan, and says he's seen some challenging winters.

"This is the biggest one," he said.

Even the nation's northernmost city, Barrow, Alaska, will be warmer than much of the Upper Midwest on Monday; it's expected to reach minus 4.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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