FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A storm that began with snow, strong winds and bitter cold into the eastern Dakotas and western Minnesota early Wednesday and began moving east was making travel treacherous and grounded flights on one of the most anticipated air travel days since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Blizzard warnings were posted in the region as National Weather Service officials called for wind chills to dip to 35 F below zero, pushed by gusts of more than 60 mph. Numerous travel advisories urged motorists to stay off the road and several highways were shut down altogether
“Winter has come to the area,” said Greg Gust, weather service meteorologist in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
The storm was centered in southeastern Minnesota and was expected to track steadily toward Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and northern Michigan by Wednesday night. The heaviest snow band stretched from the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota back toward Watertown in eastern South Dakota, Gust said.
The storm was bearing down on the Twin Cities area Wednesday afternoon, where Gust said at least 8 inches (0.20 meters) of snow was expected. Eastbound Interstate 94 was closed between Monticello and Rogers, west of Minneapolis, for three hours due a multi-vehicle crash and pileup. State transportation officials said the interstate would likely be down to one lane each way overnight and warned travelers about vehicles in the ditch.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport had experienced about 300 flight cancellations and 40 delays as of Wednesday afternoon, airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said. It was expected to be the third busiest day of the Christmas holiday travel period, behind this upcoming Sunday and Saturday, he said.
“Many people were able to get out this morning, but it could be tough going this afternoon and evening,” Hogan said.
Earlier in the day, a large gathering of people showed up at Hector International Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, only to discover that most of the flights had been canceled due to high winds and low visibilities.
“Today was going to be probably our busiest day since COVID hit or definitely just before Thanksgiving,” said Shawn Dobberstein, Fargo Airport Authority executive director. “Our building was pretty full this morning when American, Delta, United decided to cancel some flights.”
The heaviest wind gust was 62 mph (100 kph) in Fargo, Gust said. Conditions were starting to improve as the storm moved eastward, and Dobberstein was hopeful that flights would resume later in the afternoon.
Authorities in southeastern South Dakota were responding to several multiple-vehicle pileups, including one on I-29 north of Sioux Falls involving at least a dozen cars and a dozen semi-trailers, according to Dell Rapids volunteer firefighter Rick Morris. He said there were several non life-threatening injuries and some emergency response vehicles were stuck, the Argus Leader reported.
Other motorists in eastern North and South Dakota opted to wait out the storm. The Coffee Cup Travel Plaza, one of the few stops on I-94 in northeastern South Dakota, was quiet on Wednesday morning, said Dani Zubke, a worker at the store near the town of Summit.
“There’s blowing snow, low visibility and no travel advised,” she said. “It has been very slow. I don’t know that there are a lot of people out and about. There are times you can only see to the end of our parking lot.”