The worst blizzard in five years to grip southern Minnesota left road crews scrambling Monday to clear highways crippled by snowdrifts and chip away at ice buried beneath.
It was the kind of winter storm that bowed a historic covered bridge, marooned hundreds of travelers — including a hockey team — and even halted freight trains.
More than 600 motorists have been rescued from their vehicles since the blizzard struck over the weekend, including more than 200 people in Steele County, according to the state’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Two major interstate highways crisscrossing southern Minnesota, Interstate 35 and Interstate 90, were fully opened Tuesday morning after portions of both freeways had been closed for much of Sunday and Monday.
Even then, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said, only one lane on each freeway was cleared for travel in some places. It could take as long as a week to get roads open shoulder to shoulder.
“It’s kind of tight driving quarters,” said Mike Dougherty, a spokesman for MnDOT’s southeastern district, which covers Albert Lea, Rochester and Winona. “It’ll be a rough ride and an icy ride, but people will at least be able to get through.”
That was welcome news to hundreds of people forced off the roads and into packed hotels and makeshift shelters in cities like Owatonna and Albert Lea.
More than 180 people sheltered at the National Guard Armory and the nearby Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna Sunday night, and some wondered if they’d be staying a second night. Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers set up cots, provided food and calmed the nerves of frazzled travelers.
Becky Edwards, of Clinton, Iowa, spent the night at the armory Sunday. She had celebrated her birthday at the Mall of America Saturday night.
“We saw there was a possibility of a storm, but we thought we’d leave early,” she said. “It’s gonna be a very memorable birthday.”
Not since February 2014 has such a blizzard walloped the region. That storm “also basically closed all of southern Minnesota,” said Caleb Grunzke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen.
This time around, loose snow coupled with wicked winds on Saturday night and Sunday led to whiteouts and left behind dangerous driving conditions not quickly remedied Monday.
“If you were caught out in it, it was a huge problem,” Grunzke said.
Even as the strong winds died down, blowing and drifting snow continued to pose challenges for crews trying to reopen the roads. Monday’s bitter cold didn’t help, either. Temperatures struggled to reach single digits across the region, with more cold ahead.
“Salt really loses its effectiveness after about 15 degrees,” Dougherty said.
Beet juice combined with other chemicals became MnDOT’s concoction of choice due to its “lower freezing point,” he said.
Several vehicles remained buried in snow on I-35 Monday afternoon, and MnDOT crews were working to remove those stuck in the middle of the highway, Dougherty said.
Between Faribault and Owatonna, frontage roads and highways leading to I-35 were fringed with hundreds of semitrailer trucks, engines idling, waiting for the go-ahead to get back on the road.
MnDOT brought in ice breakers and front-end loaders from the metro area to help with clean-up efforts. Crews placed barricades on both interstate highways, and the State Patrol blocked entrances.
Even after roads reopened, motorists were reporting travel times nearly twice as long as normal, Dougherty said.
“Everybody is getting antsy to get on the roads,” he said.
The blizzard led to dozens of rescues from vehicles. Troopers and MnDOT officials on Monday worked to free motorists stranded at the Straight River rest stop along I-35 south of Owatonna. Some had been there more than 24 hours, the State Patrol said.
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 motorists.
Travis Pineur, 33, of Morristown Township, died Sunday trying to get his truck out of a ditch during the blizzard, the Rice County Sheriff’s Office said. Another driver had stopped to help, but a receiver hitch broke and fatally struck the man in the head.
In Freeborn County, sheriff’s deputies and members of the Minnesota National Guard rescued 87 motorists and one dog.
One rescue involved an elderly man who called 911 with a medical emergency. An ambulance could not make it, so the Guard picked up the paramedics and drove them to the man’s house, where they provided treatment. The Guard then transported the man and the medics back to an ambulance, which took him to the emergency room.
A Union Pacific freight train also got snowed in south of Ellendale at the county line between Steele and Freeborn counties. The railroad sent a second train to help out but it, too, got stuck.
Near St. James in Watonwan County, huge snowdrifts hemmed in the No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State men’s hockey team as they traveled home from Omaha on Sunday.
So the team grabbed their hockey sticks and started digging.
“It sounds on paper like it should be a good idea,” said Huskies senior forward Robby Jackson, an Alameda, Calif., native. “But it wasn’t going to happen.”
A snowplow arranged by the Sheriff’s Office led them out. The team, which had just clinched the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular-season championship, waited for the winds to subside before hitting the road again.
All the while, the players kept the Penrose Cup proudly on display.