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Winter delivers one-two punch

Two blizzards in one week close southwest Minnesota roads, cancel schools, mail delivery, commerce
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Lori Sorenson

Area residents had just dug out from the record-breaking Groundhog Day Blizzard last week when Round 2 hit just as the Super Bowl game was ending Sunday night.
Many game day travelers found it difficult or impossible to get home Sunday night, and white-out conditions through most of Monday again prompted officials to close roads in southwest Minnesota.
For both blizzards, wind speeds of 35 to 45 mph were the problem, causing blowing and drifting snow to send hundreds of vehicles off the roads.
While it was widely reported that Luverne received a foot of snow Feb. 2, more scientific estimates are around 8 inches, according to local weather recorder Troy Thone.
“When the snow is falling horizontally, measuring it can be quite a task,” he said.
Taking the measurements a number of different ways all produced the 8-inch recording. “That seems to coordinate pretty well with some of the surrounding estimates as well,” Thone said.
For example, the Sioux Falls airport (National Weather Service) reported 4.2 inches.
Four miles west of Rowena recorded 5.7 inches, Lake Benton, 6, Windom, 7, Sibley, 11, Orange City, 12, Spencer, 9, and four miles northwest of Okoboji, 9.8
This week’s blizzard resulted in only a few inches of snow, but it didn’t take much to cause zero visibility for driving.
Long day for snow crews
Both blizzards amounted to extra work for local snow removal crews.
Rock County Highway Engineer Mark Sehr said he opted not to send plows during near-zero visibility.
On Feb. 3 crews got started around 5 a.m., when two abandoned vehicles were discovered partially buried on County Road 4 west of Luverne.
“We sent out six trucks, our blower and all three motor graders,” Sehr said, adding that all hands were on deck Wednesday for storm cleanup. “Our mechanics were running blowers and our engineering techs were doing snow removal for county property in town.”
After 11 hours Wednesday and some extra intersection work Thursday, Sehr said crews had mostly caught up, except for some stubborn slippery stretches.
For Monday’s blizzard, the same scenario played out again, this time with a bit less snow to move.
In Luverne, Public Works Supervisor John Stoffel said city crews hauled away 175 truckloads of snow from the downtown area alone last week.
Luverne’s total cleanup effort from the Feb. 2 blizzard required more than 200 man hours from Tuesday through Friday, running four trucks with plows and sanders, two pay loaders with plows and blowers, one motor grader, one skid loader and two mowers with snow blower and broom attachments.
Define ‘blizzard’
While many parts of the tri-state area were under a winter storm warning or advisory, on Feb. 2 Rock County was directly in the storm’s path that was labeled a “blizzard warning.”
According to state climatologist Mark Seeley, a blizzard is defined by wind speeds of 35 mph or greater, a quarter mile of visibility or less, and heavy snow or blowing and drifting snow.
“A lot of that was in play in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa,” Seeley said during his weekly climate report on Minnesota Public Radio Friday.
While many businesses and workplaces sent employees home around noon, schools canceled classes before the day even started Tuesday morning, Feb. 2, and remained closed for two days.
For Monday’s blizzard, many southwest Minnesota schools announced Sunday night that classes would start late on Monday. But early Monday morning, dozens of schools were canceled altogether.
According to state safety officials, who advised no travel Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday morning, Feb. 2-3, and Sunday night through the day Monday, Feb. 7-8, that was the right idea.
Southern Minnesota
shuts down; roads closed
The Minnesota Department of Transportation, along with the Minnesota State Patrol and other state agencies, announced at 1 p.m. Feb. 2 that all state highways in southern Minnesota would close starting at 2 p.m.
Interstate 90 was closed from the South Dakota border east to Albert Lea and all state highways between Highway 14 south to the Iowa border.
Kullen Schrocht, manager of the GrandStay Inn and Suites, Luverne, said the blizzard had a two-pronged effect on hotel bookings.
For one thing, he said, blizzards prompt reservation cancelations, because people change travel plans under threat of poor weather.
On the other hand, unexpected stranded guests quickly fill those rooms and more. “We just kind of go with the flow,” Schrocht said.
The GrandStay booked nearly 30 extra rooms as a result of the blizzard, some from guests who decided to stay an extra day or two rather than drive, and others who found themselves in Luverne after state roadways closed.
“Everyone gets affected by it,” Schrocht said. But he added that most travelers seemed to handle the schedule changes in stride.
“A lot of conversations were about the weather,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize wind is standard for us here. They were like, ‘This is crazy.’ But we have wind most days of the week out here.”
Schrocht said he enjoys educating stranded visitors about Luverne. “We have our welcome books and visitors guides in every single room.”
He added however, that many local restaurants had closed early because of the blizzard, so there weren’t many options for hungry guests. “We ended up making a lot of frozen pizzas here,” Schrocht said.
In all, during the Groundhog Day Blizzard, most of the GrandStay’s 51 units were booked.
Closing roads spares crashes; second storm results in more wreckage
State roads in southern Minnesota remained closed until Wednesday morning, Feb. 3, and this helped prevent many snow-related emergencies, according to the State Patrol.
“There was still some traffic, but there weren’t nearly as many crashes and vehicles off the road that we would have expected with these driving conditions,” said Lt. Matt Sorenson of the State Patrol.
“It helped to announce early and close the roads when we did. I think a lot of people got the message and got where they needed to be ahead of worsening conditions.”
He said it helped to have a detailed forecast with the degree of certainty of the magnitude this system carried with it.
“Often with a storm like this, we end up closing roads only after conditions have deteriorated to the point where there are multiple crashes and stranded motorists to respond to,” Sorenson said. 
“We had some incidents, but it seemed like people heeded warnings for the most part.”
In the Marshall District (13 southwest Minnesota counties) there were two property damage crashes, one injury crash and 19 vehicles off the road. That was between 10 a.m. Tuesday and 6 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2-3.
Statewide for that blizzard, there were 39 injury crashes, 449 property damage crashes and 475 vehicles off the road.
For the Feb. 7-8 blizzard, the Marshall District had 22 property damages crashes, two injury crashes and 168 vehicles off the road. 
In Rock County this week, the Sheriff’s Office and local emergency personnel dealt with 30 vehicles in the ditch, three stalled vehicles on roads and two crashes. Last week there were a dozen incidents involving crashes and vehicles off the road.
Sorenson said the crash numbers were higher for this week’s blizzard because roads weren’t closed as early in the process.
“We were getting pretty busy already at 2 a.m.,” he said. “But it wasn’t until 8 a.m. that we started announcing that roads would be closed. By that time, there were already numerous crashes and our Troopers were scrambling to catch up.”
By Tuesday morning this week, all southern Minnesota roads had reopened.
Rain, snow, sleet, hail …
For the Postal Service, delivering daily through “rain or snow or sleet or hail,” became impossible with closed roads.
Postal patrons were greeted at the Luverne Post Office Wednesday morning with a sign notifying them that the mail had not come in.
“We all knew this was coming, so we got out early Tuesday (Feb. 2) and got done,” said Luverne Postmaster Alisha Vander Wal, who lives near Hills and assisted in the Hills Post Office that afternoon.
“I got there all right, but got stuck three times in town.”
She said four of the five rural routes from Luverne were able to complete their routes ahead of the storm, and city carriers completed their routes.
But on Feb. 3, Vander Wal said there was no mail to deliver, because the mail trucks were unable to get to Luverne.
While that made for a light workday Wednesday, she said the mail backlog kept her staff busy into the following week.
“Others are behind, too, because of the blizzard and weren’t able to get to the Post Office,” she said.
“Now we have people getting two or three Argus Leaders in a single delivery, for example, and it will take awhile to get everyone caught up.”
After this week’s blizzard postal employees are finding themselves back where they started, sorting the backlog and working to catch up mail trucks encountered closed roads Monday.
Vander Wal encouraged residents to keep their sidewalks and steps clear of snow to help carriers and to keep rural mailboxes accessible. “That really helps,” she said.
People are also reminded to help clear snow from fire hydrants so firemen can access them quickly in an emergency.

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