The big blast
WORTHINGTON - At one point Thursday, it took three dispatchers to keep up with calls coming into the Nobles County dispatch center. A majority of the calls were asking about road closings and conditions, according to Worthington Police Captain Chris Dybevick.
"Is it OK for me to drive?"
"Can I make it to Adrian/Slayton/Sioux Falls?"
"Is this route open?"
All callers were advised not to travel, Dybevick said.
"I think people wanted me to give them permission to drive in poor weather," he said.
No one was given that permission, of course. The roads across southwest Minnesota had been closed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) Thursday morning.
"I honestly wish they would have closed them sooner," Dybevick stated.
Deciding when and where to close roads is done jointly by Mn/DOT and the Minnesota State Patrol, according to Mn/DOT Public Information Officer Rebecca Arndt.
"We close them when it becomes too dangerous for even our snowplow drivers to be out on the roads," she explained. "When our drivers tell us they can't see to do their job, we pull them. We don't want to endanger them."
The biggest problem in the area is visibility, Arndt continued. And with the strong winds, large drifts form that Mn/DOT drivers can't keep up with.
Mn/DOT advised no travel at 8:30 a.m., and closed the westbound lanes of I-90 between Adrian and Worthington. According to Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening, two semi-trucks had jackknifed on the interstate and other vehicles were in ditches.
"The roads were impassible," Wilkening stated.
By 10 a.m., Mn/DOT had closed I-90 and all highways in Nobles, Cottonwood, Jackson and Rock Counties due to zero visibility and the drifts snowplow drivers couldn't keep clear.
Once the decision has been made to close a road, the barricades go up and a final sweep of the road is made in case anyone is still out there. By 10 a.m., Arndt said, the final sweep was being made, along with some rescues.
"After they close the interstate, there are always people who try to sneak around on the county roads," Wilkening said. "So then there are people getting stuck out there."
The problem, he said, is that everything is so white the drivers can't see where the shoulders and ditches are.
"If there are no trees or farm places to help you get your bearings, you are guessing where you are," he continued. "Throw a snowdrift on top of that and you have all kinds of trouble."
People who are stranded are advised to sit tight and wait for help from law enforcement or Mn/DOT. Calling others out into the weather just makes the situation worse.
"We had people get stranded and others went out to get them around 3 a.m.," Wilkening said. "Then they ended up stranded, too."
Inside city limits in Worthington, city plows kept up very well, Dybevick said.
"The city did a great job, and we were able to respond to all calls," he explained. "They did have to shut a few roads for a while to get the drifts cleaned up. The worst driving we had was in our parking lot (at the Prairie Justice Center)."
Local hotels filled up with travelers, and Dybevick noted there were quite a few semi-trucks parked in lots around town.
As for when the roads will open, Mn/DOT can only watch the weather and the wind, and try to determine when it is safe to send their plows back out.
By 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Mn/DOT made the decision to leave roads closed overnight, and add other counties to the advisory, closing highways in Brown, Faribault, Martin and Watonwan Counties.
"Snowplow drivers will resume plowing when winds subside and visibility improves," a news release stated. "Motorists are advised not to travel until conditions improve and Mn/DOT crews can make progress to recover roadways."
Arndt said motorists should be patient and allow the crews to do their jobs before venturing out after the roads open.
"The more time you allow them out there, the better roads will be," she said.
When a road is closed, it is illegal to travel in that area. Motorists can be fined up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail. In addition, if travelers need to be rescued from a closed road, other expenses and penalties may apply.