At 6:30 a.m. today, the National Weather Service was reporting snow totals of 8 inches in Faribault, 7 in Minnetonka, 6.2 in Chanhassen, 5 in Annandale and Owatonna and Anoka, and 2.8 in Forest Lake.
Plows were grinding through the snow on streets, sidewalks and parking lots in downtown Minneapolis, where one plowman estimated that 5 inches had fallen. He was close. The weather service 5.2 inches in the city.
Traffic was flowing smoothly in along Twin Cities highways at 6:30 a.m. with only one accident reported -- a crash on southbound Interstate Hwy. 35W at County Road E2 in New Brighton that was blocking traffic.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport remains open, with at least one to two runways operating. But more than 150 flights have been canceled -- including arrivals and departures -- and more than 30 flights were delayed Thursday morning.
The forecast called for one of the deepest Christmas snows on record across the region. The storm was expected to linger into Saturday, bringing 48 to 60 hours of snowfall. Jacked up on Gulf of Mexico moisture, it is capable of dropping 16 to 22 inches in a wide band from the Iowa border through the Twin Cities to Duluth and the Arrowhead.
As the storm rolled in and picked up Wednesday night, road conditions rapidly deteriorated. The Minnesota Department of Transportation labeled highway conditions across the metro area into southern Minnesota as "difficult."
Marci Blum left her home in Dubuque, Iowa, two days early to avoid the bad weather. Out shopping with her sister, Lucille Heenan, of Bloomington, the women made a mad dash Wednesday to the Mall of America to finish their last-minute shopping before grocery shopping for their family gathering of 17.
"Tomorrow, we're going to hunker down," Heenan said.
Jim Davis and Eric Flannery, who both work on the ground crew for Delta Air Lines, were at the mall on their lunch break to shop for their wives, dealing with mall madness so they could get a jump on the weather madness.
"Tomorrow will be too crazy," said Davis, of Lakeville. "We wanted to make sure and get out here today."
For Minnesota's retailers, the storm couldn't be arriving at a worse time.
Stores typically ring up 25 to 40 percent of their annual sales during the crucial holiday season, and last-minute shoppers provide a much-needed lift in the home stretch.
If shoppers stay home, it will deal a blow to retailers already expecting sub-par sales.
"Retailers had six days to make up for the snowstorms that hit the East Coast last weekend on 'Super Saturday,'" said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with NPD Group, referring to the Saturday before Christmas which ranks as one of the top shopping days.
"To lose sales on Christmas Eve day, it's much worse," he said. "You cannot make those sales up."
Travelers hope for best
At MSP, more than 100 pieces of snow-removal equipment were at the ready and 100 employees were on call when snow started falling during the evening. On-site bunk facilities are expected to be used to ensure that the workers won't be kept from reporting for duty, airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said.
"Our goal is to keep at least one runway open at all times," Hogan said.
In the silver lining department, "We do have coupon books for people who are stuck at the airport who need to get last-minute Christmas gifts," Hogan said. Also, there is wireless Internet access throughout the airport ($7.95 for 24 hours), he said.
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said Tuesday that they will allow passengers flying through the area to rebook without the standard penalties. Delta's waiver applies through Sunday, and new tickets must be reissued by Sunday to qualify. The new travel must begin by Jan. 1.
If the flight is canceled, passengers are entitled to a refund, Delta said. As of Wednesday night, Northwest/Delta already had canceled at least 50 Thursday flights, Hogan said.
People hoping to fly out of the Twin Cities weren't the only ones double-checking their flight plans. Tara Barth, who moved from the Twin Cities to Washington in January, was planning to fly out of Washington on Thursday morning, lay over in the Twin Cities for almost an hour before flying to Grand Forks and driving several hours to her family's Christmas gathering in Munich, N.D. Any cancellation would mean that Barth, who is leaving to teach English in Chile, wouldn't see some of her relatives for two years.
"It'll be the first Christmas I've missed up there in my entire life," said Barth, 25.
MnDOT was turning to its regular storm-plowing schedule despite the holiday, said spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.
MnDOT has more than 800 snowplows at 154 truck stations, with 237 plows and 19 stations in the metro area.
State homeland security and emergency management officials will begin monitoring the storm from the state emergency operations center on Thursday.
Stocking up for staying home
The checkouts at liquor stores and grocers were humming as shoppers tried to outrun the first flakes.
Jeff Cox, manager of Southtown Liquors in Albert Lea, in southern Minnesota, said the store had a steady stream of customers. "They don't want to be stuck home with nothing," Cox said.
At Byerly's in Burnsville, lunchtime shoppers couldn't find carts and check-out lines were backed up into the aisles.
Russ VanDerWerff, manager of the Cub Foods in Apple Valley, said he expected crowds Wednesday. It was Tuesday's rush that caught him by surprise. "We've called people in early, we've got people staying late," he said. "We planned on this, but people came in yesterday just trying to get ahead of the game."
Steve Hager and his 7-year-old son Cameron were filling a cart with milk, eggs, fresh fruit and plenty of soft drinks. But Hager said he cut his grocery list in half -- because family that normally comes from Mankato and Owatonna and stays the night planned to stay home instead. The typical crowd of 14 will be down to six for Christmas Eve.
"We're hoping to have everybody in next weekend," said Hager. "We're just rearranging a bit."
Regardless of the weather, though, churches were promising that nothing would budge Christmas services.
"All our masses will go on as scheduled, even if it's just the priest by himself in this big cathedral," said Tim Schindler, director of operations at St. Paul Cathedral, where the first Christmas service is scheduled for midnight. "It's the most important mass on the calendar. Our plan is simply to shovel constantly, if need be."