Meteorologist Lisa Schmit expected a slippery commute when she set out for work Saturday morning.
What she encountered was far worse than she had imagined: vehicles skidding across dangerously slick roads “like bumper cars on ice.” Drivers stranded end-to-end on both shoulders of a stretch of Hwy. 7 near Victoria. Her normally 35-minute commute from Delano to the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen stretched into a harrowing five-hour trek.
“You just feel like a sitting duck, because you’re watching people come over the hill in your rearview mirror and you’re just wondering if they’re going to hit you,” Schmit said.
“This was by far the most harrowing situation I’ve ever encountered in my career, or really my entire record of driving,” added Schmit, whose Weather Service work spans 20 years and includes stints in Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, Des Moines and Kansas City, Mo.
Hundreds of drivers felt the brunt of the slow-moving weekend storm system that pelted central Minnesota with freezing rain and caused hundreds of crashes, two of them fatal, as well as the first shutdown of Metro Transit bus service in eight years.
All morning, authorities pleaded with people to stay off the roads, lifting the no-travel advisory only when temperatures began to rise in early afternoon, melting the ice that had turned roads and sidewalks into danger zones. From 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., there were 470 crashes on state roads, killing two people and injuring 43, according to the State Patrol. Spinouts numbered 270, with 13 jackknifed semitrailer trucks.
The day’s first fatal crash was reported at 4:21 a.m., when a passerby called 911 after seeing the wreckage of a vehicle in a line of trees at the intersection of 125th Avenue and 440th Street in Brockway Township, near Opole.
Stearns County deputies found a man dead nearby who had been ejected from the vehicle. His name has not been released.
A couple of hours later, an 82-year-old man died when his pickup truck slid off icy Interstate 35E at Main Street in Lino Lakes and rolled over in a ditch. Charles J. Quernemoen of East Bethel died at the scene, the State Patrol said. He was not wearing a seat belt.
Road crews were out in force all morning, according to the state Department of Transportation, but rounds of freezing rain continued to create new sheets of glare ice. Roadways were littered with crashes and their aftermath, particularly on curves and hills.
MnDOT’s no-travel advisory for the metro area was its first time since 2010, spokesman Jake Loesch said.
“The elements of this storm just all came together to create one of the most challenging conditions we can face, which is rain coming down and freezing right away, which prohibits us from much pre-treating and can cause pretty risky conditions out there,” Loesch said. “With as many crashes as we saw early on in the morning, it slowed … our crews, too.”
Metro Transit suspended bus service from early morning until about 12:30 p.m. — the first time it has done so since February 2011, spokesman Howie Padilla said.
At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, 108 flights were delayed and two were canceled, according to an airport spokesman.
Hennepin County libraries didn’t open until late morning, and Minneapolis solid waste and recycling collection was postponed until Monday. Many garbage haulers in St. Paul also suspended collection.
Some scary slippage
Many Minnesotans took to social media to document the extreme conditions, both harrowing and hilarious. Some showed crashes or precarious situations, while others portrayed people merrily skating on ice-covered roads or sidewalks.
Neil Marriott of Eden Prairie had planned to open up his home theater equipment store on Saturday but had to drive a few miles to get there. He decided to turn around after he approached a downhill road where several cars had collided.
On his way back, Marriott had parked on the shoulder of the road for a few minutes when he witnessed a haunting sight: a school bus sliding horizontally toward him. He captured the incident on his phone as he inched his car out of the way.
“I thought the bus was going to jump the curb and take me out as well,” Marriott said.
To the north, snow
A winter storm warning went into effect at 3 a.m. Saturday and was to remain in effect until 6 a.m. Monday for much of western and northwestern Minnesota. Cities as far-flung as International Falls, Bemidji, Hibbing, Ely, Grand Marais, Fergus Falls, Morris and Marshall woke to snow and sleet Saturday and will get more through the weekend, according to the Weather Service.
By Sunday night, those areas could have several inches of snow, with blustery winds gusting as high as 30 miles per hour. The St. Cloud area is expected to get 2 to 5 inches, with 6 to 11 inches possible in Alexandria. Monday could bring even more snow and wind.
Back in the metro area, Sunday’s high is forecast to be 45, with rain falling much of the day, turning to snow and sleet later in the day. Monday will be colder, with a high of just 31, and 1 to 3 inches of snowfall likely.
So far, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in the metro look to be dry, the Weather Service said, with a low of 17 Tuesday night and a high of 31 on the first day of 2020.