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Snow strands hundreds in southern Minnesota

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A tractor-trailor is stuck in the snow on the side of Interstate 35.
A tractor-trailor is stuck in the snow on the side of Interstate 35 south of Owatonna, Minn., on Monday.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 9:35 p.m. | Posted: 5:05 p.m.

While the Minnesota Department of Transportation reopened portions of Interstate 35 Monday afternoon, authorities call many roads in southern Minnesota still unsafe for travel. 

The agency says travelers now may use the northbound lanes between Albert Lea and Owatonna, Minn., but the southbound lanes on that stretch are still closed because of ice and snow drifts.

Gusting winds and drifting snow trapped hundreds over the course of the storm. 

Mike Volpe of Dallas drove to Blaine to play in the Hendrickson Foundation's hockey tournament on a team for disabled veterans. 

He was heading back to Texas Sunday with a bunch of hockey gear and his 5-year-old son when I-35 started looking really bad. 

Volpe says he spotted a family in a Toyota Corolla stuck in a snowdrift. 

"Loaded 'em up, and took 'em to the gas station, and that's when I realized I wasn't getting much farther than that," Volpe said.

Hotels in the area were full, but Volpe had noticed electronic highway signs that said shelter was available at the armory in Owatonna, so he maneuvered his four-wheel drive diesel pickup truck into town and settled in for the night.

"I saw that the armory was open. Being ex-military I was like whatever. I told my son about it, he said, 'It's guys' weekend, let's go!'  He's all excited about sleeping on an Army bed. I was like, great."

Volpe and his son were among 100 people who spent a second night Monday sheltering in Owatonna. 

Motorists maneuver around abandoned vehicles stuck in the snow.
Motorists maneuver around abandoned vehicles stuck in the snow on State Highway 42 Monday after heavy snow and winds over the weekend north of Eyota, Minn.
Joe Ahlquist | The Rochester Post-Bulletin via AP

Minnesota National Guard Capt. Joseph Howe said an additional shelter in town and a third in Ellendale were consolidated. Seventeen more stranded drivers spent their second night at the Albert Lea Armory. 

Howe said many people got to the armories on their own, but Guard soldiers were busy Sunday plucking stranded drivers out of the snowdrifts.

"The two armories between Albert Lea and Owatonna, we did over 165 recovery operations."

In Freeborn County, authorities had the largest countywide rescue effort in at least 25 years. 

Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag said between his department and the National Guard, they rescued 87 people who were stranded in their vehicles. Freitag said in some cases, it tested their limits.

"We had our tracked ATV — it seats five, it has a heater, it's relatively comfortable — but we had 11 people in there," Freitag said. 

At one point an ambulance responded to an urgent medical call near the Iowa border but was blocked by a large snow drift just south of Albert Lea. 

Freitag said the National Guard's Delta Company came to the rescue in their Small Unit Support Vehicle, or SUS-V, to shuttle paramedics to the patient, "and then to transport the patient all the way back to the ambulance so that they could get him to the ER." 

More than 70 people ended up taking shelter at one point at the armory in Albert Lea where the Salvation Army and Red Cross were at work. 

"Everybody's got cots, everybody's got blankets, they're being fed," Freitag said. "We planned for this, and this is the first time we've done it on a larger scale." 

In Owatonna, about 180 people spent Sunday night at its armory.

Elsewhere in southern Minnesota, St. Cloud State's hockey team was making its way home after locking up their third National Collegiate Hockey Conference championship in Omaha, Neb. Huskies senior defenseman and team captain Jimmy Schuldt said they "went through one snow drift that was pretty tall but manageable, and then once we got through there it became visible that there was a much bigger one up ahead, and we were stuck in between the two."

The team was stranded for two hours before authorities got them out. They had a hot meal at Watonwan County Jail in St. James, Minn., and waited for the winds to die down before making the rest of the trip home.

On central Minnesota's Lake Mille Lacs, Meghan Larson, of Inver Grove Heights, was ice fishing with her family. She said her sister decided to head home Saturday night after looking at the radar. 

"And my brother was just like, 'We will be fine, it will be OK,'" Larson said. "And then the next morning we woke up and it was just zero visibility."

Larson said they were able to dig out, but as of Monday morning, hundreds of anglers were marooned on ice as drifting snow trapped their cars and trucks and wiped paths off the lake. 

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Joe Albert said he expects everyone will be plowed out by the end of Monday. In the meantime, resort staff have been using snowmobiles to bring food and propane to trapped anglers. 

"Conservation officers have been out there along with other local law enforcement agents, checking in on people and making sure they're OK," Albert said. "And a lot of people have decided, rather than getting a ride into shore they just want to stay with their car and their fish house."