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Blizzard-buried highways to remain closed overnight across southern Minnesota

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A jackknifed semi, stranded cars and snowdrifts block State Highway 60
A jackknifed semi, stranded cars and snowdrifts block State Highway 60 south of Madison Lake, Minn., on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. MnDOT reported that stretch of highway will remain closed until sometime on Monday.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

Updated: Feb. 24, 8:10 p.m. | Posted: Feb. 23, 7:05 p.m.

As temperatures dropped and daylight faded Sunday evening, authorities were battling blizzard conditions to locate and rescue drivers stranded amid the snowdrifts on southern Minnesota highways.

The overriding message from law enforcement and transportation officials: Stay off the roads. 

"It's challenging because the winds are creating visibility concerns (and) roads are impassable in many locations or closed," said state Department of Public Safety communications director Bruce Gordon said at about 5 p.m. Sunday.

Blizzard conditions can be seen along a stretch of State Highway 19
Blizzard conditions and a stranded truck can be seen along a stretch of State Highway 19 near Winthrop, Minn., on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 24, 2019. This view is from a MnDOT webcam.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

"If you're at home, stay there. If you're on the road and you can drive to somewhere safe, do that. If you're stranded in a vehicle, stay there — that gives first responders the best chance to find you and bring you back to safety," Gordon said. "The weather is challenging now but it's going to be even more challenging as the sun goes down." 

In some parts of the state, snowplows were pulled off the roads because of continued whiteout conditions Sunday evening and would not be back at work until 4 or 5 a.m. Monday. 

Minnesota Department of Transportation District 7, in the southcentral part of the state, reported that plows heading back out Monday morning "will be assisted by state patrol and tow companies to remove several vehicles. This process will take several hours."

MnDOT's District 6 in southeast Minnesota reported Sunday night that it may be well into the day Monday before some highways are able to reopen.

Rochester Public Schools will be closed Monday; Mankato schools will operate on a two-hour delay.

Newly fallen snow and northwest winds gusting in excess of 50 mph closed highways across western and southern Minnesota, including Interstate 35 from Owatonna to the Iowa border and Interstate 90 from the Wisconsin border nearly all the way to Worthington.

As of about 5 p.m., Gordon said, "in Olmsted County, DNR conservation officers are working with MnDOT, State Patrol and Olmsted County deputies to get to two large groups of stranded motorists on U.S. 52 and I-90 south of Rochester. There are ongoing operations because of the weather conditions."

A truck is seen stranded in snowdrifts along Interstate 90
A truck is seen stranded in snowdrifts along Interstate 90 near Welcome, Minn., on Sunday morning, Feb. 24, 2019, in an image from a MnDOT snowplow camera.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

Gordon said more than 100 people had been rescued since Saturday night thanks to the combined efforts of local and state law enforcement agencies and the National Guard. About 100 people had taken shelter in National Guard armories, including the ones in Albert Lea and Owatonna.

The Guard was activated after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz declared a state of emergency Saturday night.

Aside from the interstates, lengthy stretches of U.S. Highways 14, 52, 71 and 169 also were closed, along with numerous other state and county highways.

MnDOT reported drifts as deep as six feet in some locations. The police department in Tracy, in southwestern Minnesota, posted a photo of a snowdrift about as high as one of their SUV squads.

Among those stranded during the day Sunday: The St. Cloud State men's hockey team, whose bus trip back home from weekend games in Omaha, Neb., was halted by large snowdrifts in Watonwan County.

Assistant coach Mike Gibbons chronicled the events on Twitter, including the team being taken by the sheriff's office to shelter at the county jail. While there, Gibbons said, the players were "enjoying county jail food. Not making this up."

Find more road condition updates here.

"We'll have these breaks in the storm where you kind of look out and you say, 'Well it's bad but it doesn't look horrible, the visibility looks like it's something I could manage.' And then you get out into it and the winds kick up again and all of a sudden you're sitting kind of in the middle of this zero visibility," said Blue Earth County Sheriff's Office Capt. Paul Barta.

"If motorists aren't on the roads, it makes it easier for the plows to operate and it makes it much easier for local law enforcement who's out there trying to keep people safe and rescue people who have decided they're going to drive anyway," said MnDOT spokesperson Kevin Gutknecht.

The Waseca County Sheriff's Office posted online that "these conditions are life-threatening. We are only responding to critical emergencies and are advising people to shelter in place. Currently Waseca County plows are planning to deploy at 5 a.m. Monday morning."

Freeborn County emergency management director Rich Hall said the Albert Lea armory sheltered more than 50 people who were rescued from their cars late Saturday and early Sunday.

"It's still an extremely dangerous situation," he said Sunday morning. "In our county today we have numerous reports of people stuck and we're advising no travel whatsoever."

A Minnesota National Guard small unit support vehicle
A Minnesota National Guard small unit support vehicle arrives at the armory in Albert Lea, Minn., late Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, after rescuring three people stranded on impassable roads amid blizzard conditions in southern Minnesota.
Photo courtesy Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management

"MnDOT snowplow operators are on the roads but wind is making snowplowing challenging with drifting and limited visibility," MnDOT's District 6 in southeast Minnesota reported Sunday morning. "High winds, especially in unsheltered areas, will result in whiteout conditions and have the potential for heavy drifting."

The Blue Earth County Sheriff's Office advised no travel in the Mankato area, and said snowplows were out in the county only for emergencies. The sheriff's office said anyone who becomes stranded in a vehicle is asked to stay in their vehicle and call 911.

"We will check on them by phone periodically and evaluate our ability to reach them," the sheriff's office said. "Leaving the warmth of your vehicle in these conditions is extremely dangerous."

Barta said that as of late Sunday morning in Blue Earth County, more than 40 vehicles were abandoned or still had people inside them waiting for help that he knew of. He said his department hadn't yet called in resources from the National Guard, but that could change depending on how difficult it was to get to some stranded drivers.

To the east, Rochester Public Transit suspended bus service in the city on Sunday because of the blizzard conditions. Minneapolis and St. Paul declared snow emergencies.

And in Zumbrota, the storm caused the roof of the city's historic covered bridge to collapse.

To the north in Chisago County, the sheriff's office reported some ice anglers who spent the night out on lakes needed assistance to get their vehicles freed and back to shore through the drifting snow.

The National Weather Service in the Twin Cities also advised against travel amid the blizzard conditions. 

"If you must travel, bring a charged cell phone, warm clothes, and tell someone where you are going and when you arrive," the Weather Service reported.

Blizzard and winter storm warnings have been replaced by wind chill advisories for much of the state.

Wind chills of 25 to 35 below are possible in the Twin Cities on Monday morning, with wind chills near 40 below in northern Minnesota.

The cold conditions may lead to icy roads and a difficult commute on Monday morning.

MPR News reporter Nina Moini contributed to this report.