FARGO — An early fall blizzard and snowstorm shut down many areas of central and eastern North Dakota on Friday, Oct. 11, as more than 2 feet of snow fell in some places. About 100 motorists had to be rescued off a closed Interstate 94 and other roadways just as the autumn leaves were turning colors.
The storm was expected to last into Saturday in some parts of the state, although the Fargo-Moorhead area likely won't see much more accumulation Saturday, according to WDAY meteorologist John Wheeler.
He warned that roads could be slippery Saturday, with I-94 and secondary roads possibly remaining closed west of Fargo.
The blizzard warning issued for 22 counties in central and eastern North Dakota caused the closure of I-94 from Bismarck to Fargo, Interstate 29 from Fargo to the Canadian border and secondary highways in surrounding areas. The North Dakota Department of Transportation reported roads were "impassable and blocked" and said motorists shouldn't travel.
The blizzard warning was expanded later Friday night to include the rural areas of the Red River Valley, with poor visibility and slick roads as snow accumulated.
The worst of the storm, Wheeler said, was north of I-94, west of the Red River Valley and in the Devils Lake area where schools closed, accidents were reported, drivers were sliding into ditches and motorists were stranded.
North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Bryan Niewind said they rescued close to 100 people by early Friday night in the eastern and south-central part of the state, including 42 passengers on a Jefferson Lines bus stranded on I-94 west of Jamestown.
Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Kaiser said his department used a local school bus to make a loop on the interstate with a state plow leading the way. He said they not only picked up the bus passengers, but also another 15 drivers stuck on 45 miles of roadway between Jamestown and the county line near Medina.
He said about six or seven truck drivers told the sheriff they were going to stay with their semis and refused to board the bus.
"I told them there was a slim to none chance that we would come out again," said the sheriff about another possible rescue operation. If it weren't for the state plows, he added, they wouldn't have been able to get the stranded travelers to safety.
As for the truck drivers, Kaiser said as long as they had fuel, they'd probably be OK and that it wasn't unusual for them to stay with their vehicles.
Niewind and Kaiser said the problem later in the day was that motorists, with the interstate closed, were taking secondary roads into remote areas and becoming stranded. Niewind said troopers were trying to make rescues in those areas but said plows weren't available to help all of the troopers.
The largest snowfall total as of Friday night was at 27 inches at Langdon in the far northeast corner of the state, about 100 miles northwest of Grand Forks in the Devils Lake Basin.
Wheeler said snowfall in that area could reach up to 36 inches, or 3 feet, by Saturday. He said it's hard to measure the snow because it's wet and drifting, adding that the wind could gust to 65 mph across central and parts of eastern North Dakota and as high as 55 mph in the Red River Valley.
Other snow totals as of early Friday night were 4 inches in Grand Forks, 3 inches in Fargo, 13 inches in Bismarck and 14 inches in Jamestown with snow still falling.
Wheeler said he would call it a "monster storm" for the state.
"It's about the worst we've seen since last April," he joked, although there was a blizzard that month that caused similar problems in the region.
He said it's not unusual to have a storm like this in the Dakotas in October, but he said the 2 to 3 feet of snowfall in the Devils Lake area may be close to, if not totally, historic.
"We don't know how to equate these measurements to earlier years, like say in the 1930s or even 50 years ago, because we never had people measuring the snow in those smaller towns," he said.
The storm caused many event cancellations, although the University of North Dakota hockey team was still playing its matchup Friday night and the North Dakota State University game at the Fargodome was still on for Saturday.
The storm shut down schools across many areas of the state. West Fargo schools, concerned about some rural students, closed on Friday. Fargo schools stayed open, but canceled all extracurricular activities and practices for Saturday, Oct. 12.
Although the central and eastern parts of the state were seeing the brunt of the storm, National Weather Service Meteorologist Janine Vining, of Bismarck, said the storm was letting up later Friday in the Bismarck and Minot areas, with the sun shining in Minot about 5 p.m. However, she said, the part of the storm over northwest Minnesota near the North Dakota and Canadian border was going to have a "wrap-around effect" and bring more snow, possibly as much as 4 inches, to those areas overnight. Farther west, Vining said the storm hit starting Thursday and snowfall at Hettinger, for example, in far southwest North Dakota was 8 inches and the sun was out there, too, Friday afternoon.
Wheeler said the snowfall totals in western Minnesota would be in the 1 to 3 inch range.