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Published December 31, 2010, 12:00 AM

Another weather assault expected this afternoon

As if to put a punctuation mark on a year dominated by regional floods and tornadoes, the first swing of a two-punch blizzard hammered the area Thursday and caused a massive 100-vehicle pileup west of West Fargo that had emergency crews working into the night to rescue people from stranded vehicles.

By: Wendy Reuer, Mike Nowatzki and Kristen M. Daum, INFORUM

As if to put a punctuation mark on a year dominated by regional floods and tornadoes, the first swing of a two-punch blizzard hammered the area Thursday and caused a massive 100-vehicle pileup west of West Fargo that had emergency crews working into the night to rescue people from stranded vehicles.

After a brief respite this morning, another assault is expected to hit this afternoon and last into Saturday, said WDAY meteorologist Rob Kupec.

Thursday’s blizzard caused several major accidents and eventually forced Interstate 29 to close from Grand Forks, N.D., to Brookings, S.D., and Interstate 94 to close from Jamestown, N.D., to Alexandria, Minn.

The 100-vehicle accident, caused by zero-visibility conditions, was reported about noon Thursday 10 miles west of Fargo between Mapleton and Raymond.

Its rescue operation involved Cass County, the state Highway Patrol and the state Department of Transportation.

Capt. Eldon Meher, with the North Dakota Highway Patrol, said the accident was a domino effect, with at least 25 vehicles crashing into each other. Dozens of other vehicles were left stranded for hours between wrecks blocking the highway.

Emergency crews made up of law enforcement officers and plow drivers fought white-out conditions late Thursday to rescue about a dozen people stranded for more than eight hours in the pileup. A few semi drivers with plenty of gas elected to remain with their vehicles overnight.

From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Minnesota State Troopers responded to 309 vehicles that had slid off the interstates and highways in the state’s northwest region. About 25 vehicles received heavy damage, there were nine rollovers and three people were injured.

The driver of a car was killed in an accident with a semi truck near Sauk Centre, Minn. The car and semi were both westbound when the car began spinning and was struck broadside by the semi. No names were released Thursday.

Poor driving conditions and a problem gas pump at a Mapleton, N.D., convenience store left about seven motorists stranded at the Mapleton Community Center on Thursday, said Duane Klatt, a Mapleton Public Works employee.

A plea for open homes was issued, and some residents welcomed stranded travelers into their homes for the night, including a family with an infant child, Klatt said.

About four travelers declined residents’ offers to stay in homes and remained at the Mapleton Community Center.

Tony Kost and Peaches, his golden retriever, were westbound on Interstate 94 from his home in West Fargo when he became stranded in Mapleton. City staff rounded up food, cots and other supplies to put Kost and three others up for the night.

“I’m very grateful. There’s no leaving here tonight,” Kost said. “They’ve got some food here for us and we’re going to do just fine.”

Meanwhile, some rural towns experienced power outages Thursday.

Otter Tail Power Co. spokeswoman Cris Kling said Amenia, N.D., was without power Thursday afternoon and crews were still working to fix the problem. Their work was hampered by the blizzard.

Mapleton and rural Casselton were without power for nearly three hours Thursday afternoon while transmission lines were repaired, Kling said.

Gardner, N.D., was also without power as of late Thursday night and crews were not expected to restore it until the weather cleared.

There was little power interruption in the Fargo area, said Xcel Energy spokesman Mark Nisbit. About 70 homes had outages, but crews quickly restored power.

Many businesses and offices shut down early, including West Acres Shopping Center and Moorhead Center Mall. All Fargo Public Library locations closed at 5 p.m. and are scheduled to be closed New Year’s Eve and Day.

The blizzard also affected air travel. All flights in and out of Fargo’s Hector International Airport were canceled Thursday afternoon.

MATBUS routes in Fargo-Moorhead – including MAT Paratransit – were canceled by 5:15 p.m. Thursday. Riders should expect possible delays today depending on weather conditions.

The cities of Fargo and West Fargo issued no-travel advisories Thursday evening, although Fargo Public Works Director Ben Dow said plows would remain on primary roads throughout the night.

Fargo police Sgt. Mike Bernier said that despite the blizzard, drivers were still traveling too fast for conditions and many of the accidents were rear-enders.

He said officers cited many drivers on Thursday for traffic offenses such as running red lights.

“For whatever reason, even in this weather, people start disobeying the traffic laws,” Bernier said. “Those are the typical things we’re dealing with (today).”

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple proclaimed a statewide winter storm emergency at about 5:15 p.m. Thursday. The status allowed for use of the North Dakota State Emergency Operations Plan, which makes state resources available, including the National Guard for emergency assistance.

North Dakota and Minnesota Department of Transportation officials didn’t know Thursday when roads would reopen.

Blizzard conditions are expected to dissipate by Saturday morning.

“The snow should be done pretty much first thing Saturday morning, and I think by Saturday noontime we’ll start to see the wind let up,” said meteorologist Kupec. “First thing Saturday morning it won’t be a great idea to hit the roads though.”

As of 7 p.m. Thursday, an estimated 1.7 inches of snow fell in Fargo-Moorhead, Kupac said, with a total accumulation of 3 to 6 inches expected by this morning. Eastern Clay County, Becker County and Otter Tail County could see between 6 and 10 inches of snow, he said.

Thursday’s mixture of snowfall and 41 mph winds created near-zero visibilities, meeting all conditions necessary to upgrade the system from a winter storm to official blizzard status.

Reporters Kristen Daum and Dave Olson contributed to this report.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530

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