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Blizzard brings whiteout, floods across MN, causing highway closures

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High winds and blowing snow make travel difficult in northwest Minnesota.
High winds and blowing snow make travel difficult all across northwest Minnesota on Thursday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

In northern Minnesota on Thursday afternoon, whiteout conditions forced the closure of a long stretch of U.S. Highway 75.

At the same time, on the same highway at the other end of the state, floodwaters encroached on the driving lanes.

Such were the varied travel headaches across Minnesota as a complex storm system continued to affect the state.

Whiteout conditions

The Minnesota Department of Transportation advised no travel due to whiteout conditions in parts of northwestern and west-central Minnesota. MnDOT closed stretches of U.S. Highway 75, U.S. Highway 2, and state highways 1, 200 and 210 in the Red River Valley, among other highways.

In Clay County, which includes Moorhead, the highway department said it was pulling plows off of the roads until Friday morning because of poor visibility.

Flooded roads

Meanwhile, rain and snowmelt were combining to cause travel difficulties across the southern part of the state.

MnDOT reported that portions of State Highways 16, 20, 43, 60 and 74 were closed by high water. Other stretches of highway — including U.S. Highway 75 near Luverne, Minn., and parts of Interstate 90 — had water encroaching on the driving lanes but remained open.

MnDOT also reported some flooding along the Twin Cities metro area freeways; a ramp from Lexington Avenue to eastbound Interstate 694 in Arden Hills was closed due to flooding as of mid-afternoon.

And local and county officials reported numerous washouts or roads blocked by standing water.

MnDOT's spokesperson Rebecca Arndt said that when approaching a road covered with water, drivers should turn around.

"Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars, causing loss of control and possible stalling. And a foot of water will float many vehicles. And 2 feet of water can carry away most vehicles," she said.

Transportation officials say if you suddenly encounter standing water and have to continue driving through, it's best to go slow to avoid creating waves and flooding your engine.

MnDOT reported that its crews worked all day Thursday to open up culverts and otherwise clear a path for water to drain off roads.

Officials said they encourage drivers "to continue to expect the unexpected as any road is a candidate for flooding in these conditions and as temperatures drop, some roadways may get icy with snow or refreeze."

Preparing in Stillwater

Longer-term, flooding is expected along many rivers in Minnesota this spring.

The city of Stillwater is preparing for major flooding on the St. Croix River, and making room for a dike nearly a mile long to protect downtown.

Mayor Ted Kozlowski said in most years, the city only needs to block streets and openings in its permanent levees. But this year, he said he's anticipating building a mile or more of levee, potentially 15 feet high.

"Unfortunately, we have to prepare for the worst," he said. "Even though there's not a certainty that it's going to be that bad, but we have to prepare for it. We're basically going to be going from one end of town to the other."

Kozlowski said crews are clearing away snow this week and will ban parking in lots east of Water Street to make room for the temporary flood protection and flood-fighting equipment.

Locals are already asking for volunteers to remove the city's riverside winter light display starting Monday and taking the names of local flood volunteers on a Facebook page. Kozlowski said the city is working on a formal schedule and sign up.

"I'll be messaging all 1,500-plus of those people on that list with a link of where to go to register, and at that point, they'll be assigned times and locations," he said.

One National Weather Service forecast for this spring says there is a nearly 70 percent chance of Stillwater seeing one of the top five St. Croix River crests on record.