Freezing rain creates havoc for some, icy wonderland for others in Minnesota

Several vehicles are piled up after spinouts along Interstate 494
Several vehicles are piled up after spinouts along Interstate 494 between Robert Street and Dodd Road in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., on Saturday morning after freezing rain moved through the area.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

Updated: 6:55 p.m.

Freezing rain turned freeways and sidewalks into skating rinks across the Twin Cities and much of southern Minnesota early Saturday, leading to hundreds of crashes — at least two involving fatalities.

Spinouts, jackknifed semis and vehicles in ditches brought traffic to a standstill on metro-area highways for much of the morning, until rising temperatures started to melt the coating of ice. The Minnesota Department of Transportation lifted its no-travel advisory for the Twin Cities just after noon, though it urged drivers to watch out for icy roads and use caution through the weekend.

Find updates on road conditions here.

Meanwhile, the coating of ice created headaches for pedestrians, too — as well as a slippery wonderland for some Twin Cities residents who laced up their skates to zip down city streets and sidewalks.

And across much of western and northern Minnesota, freezing rain and snow continued through the afternoon and evening. Snow totals in parts of northwest Minnesota could reach a foot by Sunday evening — with more accumulating snow possible statewide from late Sunday night into Monday.

Find updated forecast information on MPR Weather’s Updraft blog.

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Even with limited traffic on a weekend morning, the Minnesota State Patrol reported 357 crashes on state and federal highways in just five hours Saturday, between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. Two of those crashes involved fatalities; one near St. Cloud and the other near Lino Lakes.

There also were 149 spinouts or vehicles in the ditch, and 13 jackknifed semis in that five-hour span.

Traffic is at a standstill as crews respond to an overturned semi
Traffic is at a near-standstill as crews respond to an overturned semi along Interstate 494 between Robert Street and Dodd Road in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., on Saturday morning.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

An additional 113 crashes and 121 spinouts were reported between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Those statistics do not include city or county roads.

“We were expecting some rain,” Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesperson Jake Loesch said Saturday morning. “It was a little bit unpredictable coming into the Twin Cities, where exactly that line of snow and rain would be, and it looks like temperatures were just cold enough in the Twin Cities to freeze everything right as that rain was coming down."

"It's hard for us to get salt down in advance because the rain would wash it away, but then when it gets cold and it freezes, it's hard for our crews to get out and work," Loesch said. "Our plows are out and they're salting, but with this many crashes on the road, it makes the work really slow going and it's hard to get around."

A jackknifed semi blocks traffic on Interstate 35E
A jackknifed semi blocks traffic on Interstate 35E near the 35 split in Burnsville, Minn., on Saturday after freezing rain moved through the area.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

While MnDOT lifted its no-travel advisory, the agency continued "to urge motorists to drive with extreme caution and postpone travel if possible, as slippery and icy conditions may persist throughout the weekend."

“Even when the roads look safe, they may look clear, especially this time of year — you can’t drive with enough caution,” Loesch said. “Black ice can appear out of nowhere in shaded areas on the road, certainly on bridges, where it’s usually a little bit colder so things can freeze over easier. It’s really important that people use caution, slow down and drive carefully. Ice can form unexpectedly and you can’t use enough caution, especially in these icy conditions.”

Metro Transit announced just after 7:30 a.m. that it was suspending bus service in the Twin Cities until conditions improved. Bus service formally resumed just before 12:30 p.m., but Metro Transit said delays were expected through the afternoon. Light rail service was not affected.

Metro Transit spokesperson Howie Padilla said it was the transit service’s first weather-related shutdown since 2011.

Metro Mobility was still operating Saturday "where safe operations are possible" in the Cities. The service asked riders to cancel unnecessary trips.

State Patrol spokesperson Lt. Gordon Shank reminded people to drive slow, buckle up and move over — or slow down, if you can't move over — when passing emergency responders working on the side of the road.

“If you do find yourself on the shoulder, in the ditch, make sure you stay in your vehicle and stay buckled up, call 911 and we’ll get there as soon as we can,” Shank said.

As of 8 a.m., the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport reported two of its four runways were operating. At one point earlier in the morning, the airport had been down to one runway as crews worked to clear the ice. As of 3 p.m., the airport had seen more than 100 flights delayed; officials said anyone flying out of the airport on Saturday should check with their airline.

On Saturday evening, the precipitation continued to fall as rain with temperatures in the mid-30s in the Twin Cities. Some thunder was possible overnight in the metro area and southeast Minnesota.

Freezing rain and snow continued to the north and west, where winter storm warnings and winter weather advisories remained in effect. As of 6:45 p.m., MnDOT reported numerous crashes in central and northern Minnesota — in particular along Interstate 35 between Pine City and Duluth; Highways 10 and 371 from Sauk Rapids to Brainerd; and U.S. Highway 71 near Long Prairie.

Snow accumulations may reach a foot by Sunday night in parts of northwest Minnesota, including Moorhead, Crookston and Bemidji. More freezing rain also is possible, particularly in northeastern Minnesota. And gusty northeast winds may kick up big waves along the Lake Superior shore in Duluth, where a lakeshore flood warning has been issued for Sunday.

The storm will linger in the region into early next week, with another round of accumulating snow possible from late Sunday night into Monday. The heaviest snow — perhaps several inches — is expected from the Twin Cities north to Duluth and the Arrowhead.

Find updated forecast information on MPR Weather’s Updraft blog.