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Blizzard blows away the Upper Midwest
Line Workers VEC
LINE WORKERS often have challenging conditions when restoring power. This past weekend was a good example. Line worker, Jason Berklund took this photo of Don Gander working out of a bucket in high winds and snow in the middle of the night. The truck's spotlight is illuminating the whooshing snowflakes. Photo by VEC

MIDWEST - A strong winter storm brought heavy snow and very strong winds to much of northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota, and south central Wisconsin from Saturday, Feb. 23 through Sunday Feb. 24. Southwest Wisconsin was fortunate to escape the worst of the snow, but is still recovering from roads covered in frozen precipitation and blowing and drifting snow. The combination of snow and wind resulted in blizzard conditions across northeast Iowa into north-central Wisconsin.

Precipitation moved in Saturday evening, starting out as rain to a wintry mix, but gradually changed over to snow from west to east as the night wore on. The heaviest snows fell mostly around an Austin, Minn. to a Medford, Wis. line. Over a foot of snow fell in some places. The snow came down fast, from 1 to 3" per hour at times in the area most affected. The bulk of the accumulations were done by 6 a.m. Sunday for locations south of I-94, lingering north of there through the noon hour. Areas south of I-94 received much lesser amounts of snow.

As the snow was ending, winds started ramping up. Sustained northwest winds of around 30 mph were common across the open areas of south Minnesota and northeast Iowa - gusting upwards of 55 mph. These winds spread east into western Wisconsin later in the morning, persisting through the afternoon. 

The strong winds and heavy snow created blizzard conditions across much of northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and into north-central Wisconsin. White-outs in open areas were common. There were numerous road closures (including I-90, along with some tow bans.

Crawford County experienced significant drifting and blowing snow on Sunday, which caused some road closures along with very low visibilities. The Crawford County Highway Department announced in the morning that they were pulling the plows off the roads until later in the afternoon. Emergency Management also cautioned that the winds could cause tree damage and possibly power outages.

Just to the north in Vernon County, the Vernon Electric Cooperative put out an announcement on Sunday that high winds and snow and ice were taking its toll on power lines. Outages had been reported throughout their service territory, and crews were out in the weather, on the job,  working to restore power as quickly and safely as possible.

Just before 4 p.m., on Sunday, in a ‘Highway Travel/Condition’ briefing, Monroe County Highway Commissioner David Ohnstad announced that Monroe County, like many other counties in Wisconsin, was dealing with a winter weather event that caused their human resources to be stretched beyond their capabilities. 

He explained that Highway Department drivers had begun plowing at 3 a.m. on both Saturday and Sunday mornings. 

“They are the “human” resources that I speak of,” Ohnstad explained. “The Highway Commissioner will be pulling the Drivers and plows off the roads at around 6 p.m. Sunday evening, and then starting up again at 3 a.m. They will continue to use their operational hours to focus on the Interstate and State Highway Systems.” 

Ohnstad went on to explain that when the plowing stopped, the county’s secondary roads will get little to no attention. The secondary roads will become drifted shut and impassable. 

“I ask you not to drive unless you absolutely must,” Ohnstad said. “With the weather conditions we are experiencing, and the resources stretched beyond their capabilities, if you find yourself in an emergency travel situation, assistance might be delayed. Make the smart choice and stay in the comfort of your homes.”

On Sunday morning, emergency management in Grant County announced that “current road conditions in Grant County are beyond poor and will continue to deteriorate throughout the day.” 

“At this time, the Grant Highway Department is out working to clear roads (state roads and county highways) and put down salt and rock chips, however the heavy winds is not allowing the product to stay on the roads,” the announcement read. “The white out conditions are very dangerous as you will quickly lose sight of your travel direction and it may cause you to drift into an oncoming lane.”

North and west

Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management reported on Sunday that the National Guard had rescued 30 people in southeastern Freeborn County on Saturday night. Sheriff's deputies rescued an additional 20 people. An armory in Owatonna was used to house people who were stranded.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz declared a state of emergency and ordered the Guard to help stranded motorists. The Minnesota Department of Transportation reported that I-35 was closed from Owatonna to the Iowa border, and I-90 was closed from Dexter in Mower County west, due to poor driving conditions with blowing and drifting snow.

Most highways in southeastern Minnesota were under a no-travel advisory.

Highways in southeast Minnesota, and central Wisconsin remained closed into Monday until exhausted and overwhelmed snow plow drivers could get some rest and get back out, and the winds diminished. Their efforts were complicated by countless stranded vehicles blocking the lanes of traffic.

While many schools in southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa were on a two-hour delay Monday morning, schools just to the north showed widespread cancellations.