Winter storm update: Rescues reported as blizzard conditions bury highways in parts of Minnesota
Updated: 6:15 p.m.
Highways across a large swath of south-central and southwest Minnesota remained closed Friday as winds strengthened and sent freshly fallen snow airborne — leading to whiteout conditions.
There were reports of stalled and stranded vehicles blocking highways in southwest Minnesota, with authorities having to rescue drivers. And Interstate 90 west of Albert Lea — which reopened, briefly — closed again Friday afternoon due to poor visibility.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order declaring a peacetime emergency to provide National Guard assistance to help stranded motorists in the state. Walz's office said the Renville County Sheriff's Office requested help from the Guard to rescue drivers and use armories as emergency shelters.
Winds gusted to near 50 mph at Redwood Falls in southwest Minnesota, and in excess of 70 mph at the Grand Marais harbor in northeast Minnesota.
MPR News is Member Supported
What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount today to support this resource for everyone.
In Brown County, which includes New Ulm, plows were pulled off the roads Friday afternoon because the winds were pushing snow back across roads as soon as they were cleared.
“While it may look safe in town where you have a lot of trees and buildings that kind of shelter (against) the wind, once you get out into the county, and the country, the wind picks up and the visibility goes down to almost nothing,” Brown County Sheriff Jason Seidl told MPR News.
Seidl said he and his deputies had to go out to get drivers who were stuck on roads in the county.
“These vehicles are being abandoned right in the middle of the road cause they're catching drifts. So now that leaves danger for people trying to get those vehicles out, if they're trying to shovel,” he said. “Now another person tries to go out there when they shouldn't be out there, and they run into the back of ‘em.”
As for the stranded vehicles, Seidl said, “they're probably going to be almost covered up with snow drifts and all of a sudden now — plows are going to be hitting these in upcoming days.”
Cottonwood County Public Works officials in Windom reported Friday morning that “there are several areas where large drifts are blocking roadways and with the continued winds, chances are good that the roads will blow back in behind plows. Crews have assisted in rescues already this morning with vehicles stranded in the middle of the roadways.”
In a later update, the department reported that “visibility is zero, roadways are blocked, and temperatures are life-threatening. We are pleading with the public to stay home. It is not safe for anyone to be out right now.”
The Minnesota Department of Transportation's District 8 in southwest Minnesota reported first responders were “swamped with stalled and stranded travelers” along U.S. Highway 71 south of Redwood Falls, and along State Highway 68 near Wabasso and Milroy.
To the north, the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office urged drivers to stay off U.S. Highway 59 south of Morris, after a morning crash involving several vehicles. “Visibility is low and the road is drifted over,” the sheriff’s office reported.
And north of Mankato, Nicollet County officials reported that they sent plows out Friday morning, but they were “pulled for the rest of the day due to very poor visibility. Large drifts are filling right back in behind the plows and conditions continue to get worse.”
Many state highways and county roads across western and southern Minnesota remained closed Friday either by official order, or by large snowdrifts. MnDOT’s Mankato-based District 7 reopened Interstate 90 around 10:45 a.m. after having pulled plows off the road Thursday night — but then closed the freeway again, at 2 p.m., due to blizzard conditions.
MnDOT also closed southbound Interstate 35 south of Albert Lea to the Iowa border, after Iowa transportation officials closed their stretch of the freeway due to whiteout conditions.
Authorities were urging people not to travel elsewhere in the region, too. No-travel advisories were in place Friday afternoon from Wahpeton and Morris south to the Iowa border, and east to Hutchinson, Glencoe, New Prague, Mankato and Albert Lea
“Conditions are expected to remain difficult until they gradually improve on Saturday. MnDOT encourages motorists to use caution while driving,” the agency reported Friday morning. “Reduced visibility with drifting and blowing snow will still make travel difficult.”
The agency also issued a warning that “it is illegal to travel on a closed road and if a motorist requires rescuing, they are liable for all related rescue costs.”
Blizzard warnings remain in effect into the weekend across much of the state. The northwest winds were the second phase of a two-part storm.
The first part, from Wednesday into early Thursday, dropped more than a half-foot of light, powdery snow in parts of Minnesota — creating a perfect ingredient to combine with the winds to create whiteout conditions.
Blizzard warnings remain in effect until:
6 p.m. Friday for the Red River Valley
6 a.m. Saturday from Alexandria and Morris south and east to Worthington, Mankato, and Rochester
8 a.m. Sunday for Lake and Cook counties on Minnesota's North Shore
Winter weather advisories are in effect for Duluth and the Twin Cities metro area, mostly for blowing snow. Wind chill warnings and advisories also are in effect for much of the region, as the gusty winds arrived while air temperatures were well below zero.
“Arctic air with dangerously cold wind chills will spread across the region,” the National Weather Service’s Twin Cities office warned Thursday night. “This event could be life-threatening if you are stranded with wind chills in the 30 below to 45 below zero range. Please avoid traveling. In addition, heavy snow remaining on trees from the last storm and strong winds arriving could result in tree damage and power outages as temperatures drop below zero.”
The National Weather Service reported a wind gust of nearly 74 mph at the Grand Marais harbor, the second highest recorded for that site. The record of 80.5 mph was set in June 2009 during a thunderstorm.
2,400+ crashes and counting
Difficult driving that started amid the falling snow on Wednesday continued into Thursday and Friday on Minnesota roads, as the subzero temperatures made it difficult to clear compacted snow and ice.
Between 6 a.m. Wednesday and 4:30 p.m. Friday, the State Patrol reported more than 2,400 crashes and spinouts on Minnesota highways. That total is just for state and federal highways and doesn’t count city and county roads. There were no reports of serious injuries or fatalities.
Blowing and drifting snow will continue to make travel difficult across the region on Friday and into at least the first part of the weekend.
MnDOT said it would have 800 snowplows and 1,600 drivers ready to clear highways across the state, when it was safe to do so.
Drivers can check road conditions on the state's 511 website and should try to avoid driving during the worst of the storm.
Lt. Gordon Shank with the Minnesota State Patrol said Thursday that it appeared many people were heeding warnings not to travel until the storm moves out this weekend, he added.
"For us, we know this is a long couple of days,” he said. “We'll continue to see, with the high winds and the ice on the roadways and the blowing snow, that there are still some challenges that drivers are going to have around the state. We want drivers to make sure that they're cognizant of that, they're giving themselves extra time if they need to go somewhere and that they're checking the conditions before they decide to head out."
Snow emergency parking rules remained in effect in Minneapolis, St. Paul and some other communities.
To the west, South Dakota transportation officials closed Interstate 90 between Sioux Falls and Rapid City due to whiteout conditions. Authorities said stuck and stranded vehicles were blocking lanes of traffic along the freeway.
Interstate 29 between Sioux Falls and the North Dakota state line reopened Friday morning after an earlier closure. So did Interstate 94 west of Jamestown, N.D.
But even where highways were technically open, authorities were advising no travel across much of North and South Dakota as of midday Friday.
Watching the airport and train stations
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport reported more than 90 canceled flights and additional delays early Friday, following dozens of cancellations on Thursday.
Many flights were still set to arrive and depart on time, though, ahead of the forecast worsening of conditions later in the day.
Twin Cities airport officials said travelers should keep an eye on the forecast and their flight's status, and expect delays on roads near the airport.
Elsewhere in the region, Sioux Falls Regional Airport was back open late Friday afternoon, after being closed Thursday and much of the day Friday. Officials there cited blizzard conditions, and subzero temperatures affecting airport equipment, for the closure.
For rail transport, Amtrak has canceled trains on its Empire Builder route between Chicago and Seattle — including the stretch across Minnesota — through Sunday due to the winter storm.
Amtrak says it made that decision “in an abundance of caution” given the blizzard conditions and dangerously cold wind chills.
It's waiving fees for passengers who want to change their travel plans.
Power outage concerns
Minnesota utility companies were reporting sporadic power outages Friday, as the gusty winds battered trees already weakened by previous storms this winter.
Minnesota Power reported outages affecting more than 1,500 customers in the Duluth area just after noon, but only a few outages remained as of late afternoon. East Central Energy had responded to outages in Pine County through the morning.
While not widespread as of midday, any outages were of particular concern amid subzero temperatures and dangerous wind chills.
And utilities were bracing for more downed lines.
“The biggest threat for power outages is expected to come from trees still loaded down with snow from last week’s wet, heavy snowfall. High winds, coupled with low temperatures this week that will make the trees more brittle, could lead to more trees and limbs contacting power lines,” Minnesota Power reported. The utility said its crews have “been working since last week’s storm to pre-emptively remove trees that threaten power lines and could cause an outage.”
“Despite the preventative tree removals, power outages are still possible during this storm. Travel and working conditions are expected to be hazardous and difficult at times and could slow any response during what is expected to be bitterly cold and windy weather.”
Natural gas utilities urge energy conservation
Minnesota's natural gas providers urged customers to consider turning down their heat to conserve energy during the cold snap.
Extreme cold across much of the U.S. has caused a short-term spike in natural gas prices.
Ross Corson is a spokesperson for CenterPoint Energy, Minnesota's largest natural gas distributor. He said they're not concerned about having enough gas to keep the heat going. But Corson said consumers can take steps to conserve energy and save money.
"In general, I think people should just keep that thermostat at a level that they feel comfortable with. But if you can lower it, like down to 65 degrees during the day and a little bit lower even at night, or when they're away, that conserves energy," he said.
Corson said other ways to conserve energy include cleaning or replacing your furnace filter, keeping shades or curtains open during the day and closing them at night, and adding weather stripping around doors and windows.
Anyone who's having trouble paying their heating bills should contact their utility to set up a payment plan and see if they're eligible for energy assistance.
Many school districts across southern and central Minnesota canceled classes Thursday, or moved to an e-learning day.
Most districts — if they were in session this week — already had planned for Friday to be the start of the winter break, so additional school disruptions on Friday were likely to be minimal.
Metro Transit activates cold-weather protocol
With temperatures below zero, Metro Transit activated its cold weather protocol Wednesday. People who need a warm place to stay will not be turned away from the Twin Cities' public transportation if they're unable to pay a fare.
But spokesperson Drew Kerr said the agency does not encourage people to use buses, trains or transit facilities as shelter, and should instead use public transit to access warming centers.
Kerr says managers have directed drivers and other staff to watch for anyone in need of help, and to report the information to dispatchers.
MPR News reporters Jacob Aloi, Peter Cox, Sarah Thamer, Kirsti Marohn and Matt Sepic contributed to this report.
Links for more information
Here’s how to keep tabs on forecasts, travel conditions and flight updates over the next few days.
MPR News: Live weather blog and real-time radar
National Weather Service: Snowfall reports
These state transportation departments offer live updates on road conditions and crashes:
For bus and light rail riders in the Twin Cities, Metro Transit offers weather-related updates on its Metro Transit and Metro Transit Alerts Twitter pages, as well as on its website.
If you’re planning to fly from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport or another airport around the region — or if you are expecting visitors to arrive by plane — airports offer flight status updates online:
While a winter storm can cause trouble for travelers, it can be welcome news for skiers, snowmobilers and other winter activity enthusiasts.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers updates on cross-country ski and snowmobile trail conditions at state parks and along state trails around Minnesota.
The Minnesota Ski Areas Association posts updates on snow conditions at downhill ski and snowboard areas around the state.
The Loppet Foundation posts updates on cross-country ski trail conditions in Minneapolis.
SkinnySki.com shares cross-country ski trail updates from across the state.
MPR News reporters Sarah Thamer and Peter Cox contributed to this report.