A Christmas blizzard upended holiday travel across Minnesota on Wednesday, delaying flights, closing roads across most of the state and stranding motorists.
Central and southern Minnesota were under a blizzard warning Wednesday, with 70 mph-plus wind gusts causing conditions to deteriorate quickly.
By Thursday morning, the weather turned to sub-zero wind chills with reading between -20 and -35 for the Twin Cities and central Minnesota.
Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport received 8.7 inches Wednesday, which was a record for the date. Other totals included Chanhassen with 8 inches, Fridley with 7, Red Wing with 6 and Lakeville with 5.
Minneapolis and St. Paul declared snow emergencies. Nearly 300 flights at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) were canceled, with dozens delayed. Metro Transit reported numerous bus delays.
Poor visibility and slick roads contributed to driving havoc, from a multivehicle pileup that closed Interstate 94 near Albertville and Monticello to hundreds of crashes with dozens of injuries statewide. Whiteout conditions closed Interstate 90 between the South Dakota border and just east of Blue Earth.
A slew of crashes in the Duluth area — including a multivehicle mess on I-535 — prompted officials there to plead with the public to stay off the roads.
In many rural areas, the State Patrol reported that counties were bringing their snowplows back to the garages because visibility was zero.
In west-central Minnesota, the National Guard opened its armory in Olivia to shelter stranded motorists. Another was opened in Fairmont, in far southern Minnesota. A 12-mile stretch of Hwy. 12 from Benson to Murdock was completely blocked by cars that had to stop because of poor visibility. The State Patrol was helping people get to safety.
High winds were being blamed for rolling blackouts in southern Minnesota.
The storm wasn't the area's first snowstorm of the season, said Bill Borghoff of the National Weather Service. That was Oct. 20, when the Twin Cities got 7.9 inches.
"But this storm is definitely worse, in terms of wind and impact," the senior forecaster said. "All the roads are closed in western Minnesota."
With the snow still falling Wednesday night, the NWS reported 4.5 inches at MSP, 5.5 in Chanhassen and 7.5 in Jordan and Carver.
"And we are going to have several more hours of this," Borghoff said, predicting up to 10 inches once the storm has passed.
In St. Paul, 30-35 trucks fanned out over main roads and arterial streets around noon, said Lisa Heibert, spokeswoman for St. Paul Public Works. By 9 p.m., when the snow emergency was starting, a fleet of 70-80 plows was expected to begin clearing more than 1,800 lane miles of city streets. Plow drivers were already reporting poor visibility across the city on Wednesday afternoon.
"If you don't have to go out, it's best to stay off the roads," Heibert said.
Beating the storm
That didn't keep people from rushing to stores and shops in the hours leading up to the storm, as they tried to beat the gusting and falling temps while they could.
At the Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis, customers packed the aisles between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., said Josh Mead, an employee. While much of that traffic died down as the snowfall intensified, he said he expected the market to stay open until 9 p.m.
COVID sites closed
However, scores of other stores and businesses across the metro — including COVID-19 testing sites — decided to call it an early night ahead of the blizzard.
At Hudson Hardware in Richfield, shoppers flocked the aisles to buy shovels and ice melt in the hours before dropping temps and gusting winds started turning rain into blowing snow.
"I expect tomorrow to be even busier. That's usually how it goes," said Lisa Hudson. "We saw a lot of traffic in here. The parking lot was packed — until the wind gusts. Then people went home."
Liquor stores, too, saw a prestorm rush Wednesday.
At GP Liquor in Inver Grove Heights, owner John Vogt said the day before Christmas Eve is usually pretty quiet. A looming blizzard prods people to stock up on libations, he said.
"It's been a very busy day." he said. "The weather definitely makes people lose their minds."
Staff writers Paul Walsh and David Chanen contributed to this report.