Dozens of people were rescued from their vehicles as a dangerous blizzard pummeled southern Minnesota on Sunday, creating massive snowdrifts that left roads littered with abandoned cars and made some impassable even for snowplows.
The State Patrol on Sunday afternoon advised no travel in southern Minnesota because of the whiteout conditions, which contributed to 165 crashes with 20 injuries and more than 400 spinouts.
Extra troopers from St. Cloud and the Twin Cities were deployed along with National Guard units, state conservation officers, sheriff’s deputies, plow drivers and even local snowmobile clubs to rescue stranded motorists.
“There are ongoing rescue operations that will likely continue through the night,” Bruce Gordon, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said Sunday evening.
At least 88 people had been rescued from their snowed-in vehicles just in Freeborn and Steele counties, where Gov. Tim Walz had declared a state of emergency in order to mobilize the Minnesota National Guard and open armories as makeshift shelters.
Hotel lobbies, convenience stores and churches were opened to stranded travelers, and a jail in St. James, Minn., temporarily housed the St. Cloud State men’s hockey team after its bus got stuck between two snowdrifts on a rural road.
“We were looking for ways around roads that were impassable,” said Mike Gibbons, an assistant coach for the team. “We thought we could travel on a one-mile stretch of road and it backfired. … There was probably an 8-foot drift in front of us.”
Snowfall ranging from 2.8 inches in Burnsville to 13 inches in Rochester was quickly followed by sustained winds of 25 to 30 miles per hour, with gusts reaching 50 mph, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
The wind and weight of the snow caused the roof of a historic bridge in Zumbrota to collapse at the height of the storm. The town’s mayor, Brad Drenckhahn, said it’s believed to be the only covered bridge in Minnesota.
Bitter cold ahead
Temperatures were expected to plunge below zero early Monday, with the windchill expected to reach 35 below.
The snowfall caused numerous crashes in the Twin Cities and prompted the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to impose snow emergencies, both taking effect at 9 p.m. Sunday.
In Minneapolis starting Wednesday at 8 a.m., winter parking restrictions take effect. Parking will be banned on the even-numbered side of non-snow-emergency routes until April 1, unless the ban is lifted sooner. These restrictions ensure streets are passable for emergency vehicles, buses and others.
The whiteout conditions and drifting snow forced highway and road closures, including Interstate 35 from Faribault to the Iowa border, and 120 miles of Interstate 90 from Jackson to Dexter, because snowplows were struggling to keep up and navigate the drifts, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
State conservation officers were part of a team that rescued two groups of motorists stranded on Hwy. 52 and Interstate 90 near Rochester. Rescue operations in Olmsted County had finished by late Sunday night, said Sheriff Kevin Torgerson.
The St. Cloud hockey team had been returning from winning a tournament in Omaha when its bus got stuck Sunday afternoon. A plow cleared the way so the bus could reach the Watonwan County jail. The cook for the jail and an adjacent restaurant came in to feed the team.
“McDonald’s wasn’t even open,” Gibbons said.
The team took pictures with the sheriff and their trophy and then hit the road again Sunday night after the nearest highway had been plowed.
Rescue efforts had been hampered by the conditions. In Dodge County, the Sheriff’s Office said that plows, tow trucks and law enforcement squad cars had been grounded by the snow, and the plows were going to call it a day by late Sunday afternoon.
The Owatonna armory started sheltering travelers early Sunday, as the Red Cross put out cots and brought in breakfast pizza, doughnuts and sandwiches. By evening, the armory was full with 150 people, so nearby Trinity Lutheran Church was opened as a second shelter.
Some travelers who had stopped at the armory on their own had to be discouraged from trying to drive again, said Bonnie Johnson, who was in charge of sheltering for the Steele County Community Emergency Response Team.
“They just think that they should have been able to make it,” she said. “They think they’re going to leave, but we keep telling them ‘no.’ ”
Visibility near zero
Visibility was near zero in the Rochester area, where county roads and smaller highways also were closed. Interstates in the area were expected to remain closed until Monday morning at the earliest. The NWS advised people that “your life is at risk” if you drive and get stuck in the frigid cold.
Joe Kelly, director of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management, advised people to shelter in place. “If you’re at home, stay at home. If you’re on the road and you can drive someplace safe, please do that. If you are stranded in your vehicle, please stay in your car.”
In Goodhue County, Drenckhahn visited the Zumbrota VFW on Sunday afternoon, where about 10 people were stranded because Hwy. 52 had closed. The local motel was full, he said, so the VFW had become “a staging area,” since it was the only place open.
He lamented the damage to the covered bridge, noting that the roof had split down the middle, probably from the weight of the snow. But he said it is insured and will be repaired.
“While it’s certainly a sad day in Zumbrota, it’s certainly not the end of the covered bridge,” Drenckhahn said. “It’s too old of a friend to not think about taking care of it.”
Poor conditions were reported statewide. In East Grand Forks, drifting snow left sections of Hwy. 2 impassable, illustrated by several vehicles in the ditch between Crookston and the border with North Dakota. The North Shore was also under a blizzard warning Sunday from just north of Duluth to the border with Canada.
Hotels full, even lobbies
Jarrod Johnson thought he was being smart when his family left Wanamingo, Minn., Saturday night in anticipation of snow to get to a youth wrestling tournament in the morning in Zumbrota. His 5-year-old son and two nephews were ready to compete and his mother-in-law and father-in-law were eager to watch, he said, but the tournament was canceled.
“Now we’re still stuck here, with nothing to do,” Johnson said from the sold-out Comfort Inn in Owatonna.
Most hotels in town were full. Comfort Inn manager Vicki Lysne said she wasn’t turning anyone away, though. Travelers were welcome to sit in the common areas of the hotel and eat snacks she was passing out.
“We’re just not going to put anybody out there,” Lysne said.
Johnson’s family ventured to the Kwik Trip for pretzels and sunflower seeds but barely made it there and back in Johnson’s four-wheel-drive vehicle.
“It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so windy,” Johnson said.
Breanna Boyce and her mother, Kristina, ended up at the Owatonna armory. Breanna had tried to drive Saturday night from her home in Mankato to Rochester for her job as an American Sign Language interpreter. Then her car broke down on Hwy. 14.
Her mother tried to get her when she hit whiteout conditions around 1 a.m. Sunday and said that her car “just plowed into a huge drift.” A state trooper stopped by to give her water and see if she was OK, and then a man in a truck drove her to reconnect with her daughter, who had been rescued separately and taken to Owatonna.
“I overestimated my ability,” Kristina Boyce said, “and I underestimated the weather.”