Wind, water, snow and ice: Minnesota's winter won't go quietly

High winds and blowing snow make travel difficult in northwest Minnesota.
High winds and blowing snow made travel difficult all across northwest Minnesota Thursday. This road near Moorhead is snow covered and slippery.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Updated 4:15 p.m. | Posted 4 a.m.

Winter just can't make it easy.

The season refuses to go gently to spring this year. A record-setting bomb cyclone roared into the state's western reaches Thursday while rainfall and warm temperatures sped up the prospect of flooding in the south.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures in the forecast leave flood season looming across the state. Slush, ponding and lots of water with nowhere to go have let some roads impassable already.

Gov. Tim Walz said Friday that Minnesota is prepared for the expected rash of serious spring flooding in the coming weeks and that protecting life and property are priorities.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz receive updates on flooding.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz meet with officials to receive updates on the threat of flooding across the state from disaster response professionals from various state and federal agencies Friday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

"Minnesotans are really good at this," he told reporters. "Yes, it's because we have had experience with it. But more importantly, it's because we plan. We hope that none of this happens, but hope is not a plan."

Dan Luna of the National Weather Service said significant river flooding due to snowmelt typically comes in mid-April.

Any river flooding this year is probably at least seven days away, he added, noting next week's weather of above-freezing daytime temperatures and below-freezing nights. A rapid warmup combined with heavy rain is the worst-case scenario, he said.

MPR News reporters are fanned out across the state, talking to Minnesotans about how they're dealing with the wild weather and prepping for possible floods. Here's what we know on Friday.

Northwest: Ada eyes flood threat after blizzard

Freezing rain and blowing snow made for hazardous road conditions in northwest Minnesota Thursday. But in the small town of Ada, Minn., about halfway between East Grand Forks and Moorhead along the state's western border, officials aren't worried about yet another winter storm. They're thinking ahead — to flood season.

The Thursday lunch crowd was almost nonexistent at West Main Pizza downtown. The snow came down thick, almost sideways in the wind. It rained almost an inch early that morning, and when temperatures dipped below freezing, the power lines west of town iced over.

Todd Sawrey owns the pizza place — but he's also Ada's mayor. And he wasn't too concerned about the intermittent power outages.

Instead, he was just thinking about what all the rain and snow might mean for flood season. That's all people in Ada think about this time of year, he said, ever since 1997, when record floods inundated most of the Red River Valley, causing billions of dollars in damage.

"The folks that were around in '97 — you do have some of those flashbacks," he said. "My family was actually rescued by the National Guard out of our house. We lived through that nightmare. And so, I don't ever want to have that feeling again of just being lost. Helpless."

And in a normal year, he said, he'd be terrified of a spring like this. It's shaping up to be a potentially significant flooding season.

Ada, Minn.
Ada, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

"You're talking a large amount of water that's within these snow banks out in the fields," he said, "plus now we dump water on top of that with rain, which makes it even more dense."

Already this week across broad swaths of the southern half of the state, roads are closed due to pooling snowmelt. Basements are waterlogged. Rain has turned to sleet has turned to snow and then back to rain, and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, weather watchers recorded a 9-inch loss of snow depth from Wednesday to Thursday.

The flood watches and warnings in southeastern Minnesota have already begun. And so, normally, Sawrey and his neighbors in Ada would be looking at all those factors and worrying.

But in Ada, this year is different. This year, Ada is very prepared for a flood — even, Sawrey said, if it turns out to be a major one. With the help of several agencies including FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, the city not long ago finished the massive ring dike it's been working on for 20 years.

"We would be sandbagging at this point, just to be prepared," Sawrey said, "and we don't have to do that anymore."

The anxiety that's gripped Ada every flood season since the late '90s is finally starting to fade, Sawrey said. But it's not gone yet. The city's dike is certified against a 100-year flood. But it hasn't been tested yet by floodwaters.

Sawrey said he's pretty sure it will hold up well. But he's not taking any chances. He's been planning.

"I want worst-case scenarios," he said. "I want to talk about breach. I want to talk about if that happens, what do we have in place."

So, at least a week ahead of any possible flooding, the town of Ada has positioned a fleet of heavy machinery within striking distance of the new dike. If it springs a leak, they'll patch it.

There are generators, too: enough to help a series of pumps siphon snowmelt up and over the dike, even if every power line for a hundred miles is down.

Sawrey's even instructed his public works crews to put fresh batteries in their flashlights.

"Having been through what we've been through, it really made us steely-eyed focused with regards to how we handle what we call 'events,'" he said.

South of Ada, Fargo, N.D., Mayor Tim Mahoney says he's concerned about a new flood outlook that includes a small chance of record flooding on the Red River this spring.

The city plans to start filling 1 million sandbags on April 1. Fargo has spent $280 million on flood control since 2009. Mahoney says the city is well prepared.

"I don't need as many sandbags, we won't need 100,000 volunteers. But we will need people to turn out and help as we get going into this," he said.

— John Enger | Ada, Minn.

Southeast: Flood warnings begin

A car drives through water pooled on Minnehaha Parkway and Cedar Avenue
A car drives through water pooled on Minnehaha Parkway and Cedar Avenue on Thursday in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

National Weather Service flood warnings are out for Mower, Fillmore and Scott counties in southern Minnesota as snowmelt, warming temperatures and rain converge.

Other warnings include:

• The Root River in Houston, where the agency says snowmelt and rainfall have caused flooding in low-lying areas. The agency cautioned that conditions on the river could lead to ice jams, which cause significant jumps in river levels &mash; and noted that ice might cause gauge readings to look higher than is accurate.

• The middle fork of the Zumbro River in Pine Island, where the agency is forecasting minor flooding. The Goodhue County river crested at 17.51 feet at 9:30 Thursday evening, a little more than half a foot above flood stage.

• The Cedar River near Austin, which was measured below flood stage Thursday night, but was forecast to rise above flood stage then decrease throughout Friday. The agency cautioned that low-lying areas would likely see some minor flooding. If the river hits flood stage — 15 feet — in Austin, the agency said, the city "takes specific actions to warn people and businesses."

Southwest: Road closures mark transition to spring

The Minnesota Department of Transportation's map of road closures, hazards and slowdowns had been littered with warnings of whiteout conditions, slush and flooding.

For the most part, though, roads were open Friday, although there are intermittent closures and roadblocks on local and county roads scattered around the area.

Rising water and snowmelt were covering roads in Granite Falls, near Worthington and Luverne, near Montrose, west of Faribault, and Mankato.

MnDOT said Highway 13 south of Waseca was still closed as of midmorning Friday, as well as Highway 75 north of Interstate 90 to Trosky.

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

When approaching a road covered with water, Arndt said, turn around. And if you're already in standing water and have to continue driving through, go slowly to avoid creating waves and flooding your engine.

Crews were working to make a drainage path for the water, clearing frozen culverts and catch basins and even plowing off some of the water that turned to slush overnight.

Metro Twin Cities: Sand Creek creeps in Jordan

Police are warning people not to enter or exit Jordan's mobile home park.
Jordan police said Friday the entrance to Valley Green Mobile Home Community is impassable.
Laura McCallum | MPR News

Some Twin Cities neighborhood streets saw pooling slush, as city drains remained covered and frozen with the remains of the winter's heavy snows.

Weather service forecasters say the combination of light precipitation Thursday night and ice jams breaking up upstream had caused moderate flooding on Scott County's Sand Creek in Jordan.

By 7 p.m. Thursday, the National Weather Service reported, the river was at 11 feet, a foot above flood stage, and would "continue to slowly fall to below flood stage through Friday."

Jordan's Valley Green Mobile Home Community was evacuated after several ice dams forced Sand Creek over its banks. Jordan and Scott County public works crews worked for hours but were unable to clear the jam.

An emergency shelter, the county said, had been opened at Jordan High School, about 2 miles away. Police asked people not to even attempt to enter or exit the trailer park because of flood waters. About 300 homes were affected.

Residents like Mark Cates didn't see their homes flood, but navigating the area remains difficult.

"I drove through it the last time it flooded with my Jeep and just barely made it through," he said.

Officials say creek water levels appear to be dropping so evacuees may get to go home late Friday afternoon.

— Laura McCallum | Jordan, Minn.