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Published January 01, 2011, 12:00 AM

2010 out with a bang with double blizzards

Travel likely to remain hazardous all weekend
Ice and snow continued their wintery grip on the Red River Valley as a new year greeted eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota with a second blizzard in as many days.

By: Mike Nowatzki, Wendy Reuer and Steve Wagner, Forum staff writers, INFORUM

Ice and snow continued their wintery grip on the Red River Valley as a new year greeted eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota with a second blizzard in as many days.

Widespread power outages, daring rescues in white-out conditions, cleanup from a massive accident stranding 100 vehicles on Interstate 94 and extreme measures to prevent unnecessary travel marked New Year’s Eve.

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning until noon today along the entire Red River corridor in North Dakota and Minnesota, with new snow accumulations of 6 to 9 inches expected in a line from Fargo to Bemidji, Minn.

Thousands were forced to seek remedies to stay warm throughout the region Thursday and Friday as crews worked to repair power outages in north Fargo and rural Cass and Clay counties. By 5 p.m., when heavy snow fell again in Fargo, temperatures dropped below zero. Wind chills plummeted into double digits below.

Two rounds of wind and snow forced North Dakota officials to close Interstates 29 and 94. In Minnesota, road crews worked to open major highways Friday morning only to close them again by 4 p.m.

North Dakota officials said I-94 from Fargo to Jamestown and I-29 from Grand Forks to the South Dakota border would remain closed, and no travel was advised.

“Given the status of the cleanup and the current and forecast conditions, the Interstate will remain closed into Saturday,” the North Dakota Department of Transportation said Friday evening. “The roadways continue to be impassable, and it is against the law to drive past a road closure device on a closed road.”

About 8:30 p.m. the road was shut down farther west, from Jamestown to Bis­marck.

In Minnesota, transportation officials advised no travel in the entire west-central region, with major roadways remaining closed until at least sometime today.

On Friday, Fargo crews took to the streets, building snow dikes on windswept stretches of 19th Avenue North and 32nd Avenue South to prevent motorists from traveling in areas where plows couldn’t keep roadways clear.

MAT pulled its buses from metro roads, and the West Acres shopping center closed for the day.

But the most dramatic stories of the year-end storms were rescues Thursday night and Friday in a blinding blizzard.

About 100 vehicles were stranded Thursday on I-94 near Mapleton, N.D., many of them damaged from collisions on the roadway. The North Dakota Highway Patrol reported 35 property-damage crashes and four injury crashes in a half-mile stretch about 10 miles west of Fargo.

One of those crashes resulted in serious injuries to Lowell Balk, a 45-year-old man from Walcott, N.D., who stopped and exited his semi to help other motorists. He was struck by a vehicle, which was hit by another truck.

Balk was taken to Fargo’s Essentia Health, where he was listed in critical condition, an official said Friday.

Conditions improved enough Friday morning so Cass County crews could get a snowplow to Mapleton, where it led a caravan of people who had spent the night at the Mapleton Community Center back to Fargo and West Fargo, Cass County Chief Deputy Jim Thoreson said.

The caravan included 36 people, six dogs, 13 cars and two semis, he said. Most were stranded motorists who had tried to use County Road 10 after I-94 closed but were turned back and sent to Mapleton, Thoreson said.

Stranded vehicles from the I-94 pileup were towed or driven to a central location for owners to claim them, he said. Authorities worked with towing companies to clear semis and vehicles from the crash site before a second blast of snow and wind, said Bruce Nord, maintenance engineer for the state Department of Transportation’s southeast district.

“We’re just trying to get ahead of the game while we’ve got a little lull here,” said Capt. Eldon Mehrer of the North Dakota State Highway Patrol.

Though no major medical problems were reported, it was a long night for many stranded drivers.

“There were a lot of people who were very grateful to see us,” Mehrer said.

Minnesota State Patrol Trooper Jesse Grabow said blowing and drifting snow reduced visibility to create dangerous driving conditions. Still, road crews opened I-94 and Highway 10 between Moorhead and Detroit Lakes for several hours.

Those roads, along with Highway 210 between Fergus Falls and Breckenridge, were closed at 4 p.m. Friday. West central Minnesota received up to a foot of snow Thursday and early Friday and appeared to be in the storm’s direct path for another heavy dose Friday night. A snow emergency was declared in Fergus Falls.

Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon said most people adhered to the no-travel advisories, although the lake roads and side roads were still snow-filled Friday afternoon.

Sgt. Barry Fitzgibbons of the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Department said most roads were plowed by Friday afternoon but the glare ice underneath was making for treacherous driving conditions.

A North Dakota Transportation Department crew Thursday night picked up about a dozen stranded motorists on Highway 46 by Kindred, N.D., leaving Fargo around 7:30 p.m. and returning at 2 a.m., Nord said.

Rescuers also found a man and his dog stranded on I-29 near Galchutt, N.D.

“He had a pair of shorts on, and his car had quit, and if we hadn’t gotten there, he definitely would have froze to death,” Nord said Friday, adding that too many motorists don’t have winter survival kits and are unprepared for conditions.

Thoreson said three motorists were rescued Thursday from Cass County Road 10 west of West Fargo. The last person to be rescued from County Road 10 was a semi driver who told authorities he wanted to stay with his truck but then called about 4 a.m. Friday for authorities to come get him, Thoreson said.

Deputies and state troopers following snowplows in four-wheel-drive vehicles were out Friday looking for stranded motorists, rescuing four people from two vehicles on I-29 near Argusville, N.D., shortly after 5 a.m., Thoreson said.

A family of four and a person in a separate vehicle were picked up on I-29 south of Fargo near the Kindred exit, he said, noting it took rescuers three hours to make the roughly 30-mile round trip.

Cass County pulled snowplows from county roads shortly after 2 p.m. and expected to return only in an emergency, as rural roads and highways were “basically impassable,” Thoreson said.

The county’s tactical operations center asked anyone needing assistance or those with questions about help to call (701) 297-6000.

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist also dispatched his deputies early Friday to start checking for stranded motorists even though no rescue calls came in Thursday night.

Hazardous travel, the norm for most of the past two days, will likely remain the reality through the weekend.

I-94 is “solid ice, literally” from Fargo to the exit for Buffalo, N.D., about 40 miles to the west, said Mehrer of the North Dakota State Patrol.


Readers can reach Forum reporters Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528 or Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530

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