WILLMAR -- A Monday storm that seemed to come out of the blue took west central Minnesota school districts, highway departments and travelers by surprise and forced them to respond quickly to changing weather conditions.
By noon, most area schools were closed and students were sent home.
At 3 p.m., the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minnesota State Patrol pulled plows off the roads and closed highways in nine counties in west central and southwestern Minnesota, to inlcude Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Kandiyohi, Redwood and Yellow Medicine.
U.S. Highway 71 and state Highways 23 and 40 were closed south and west of Willmar.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty activated the Minnesota National Guard to assist counties in southern and west central Minnesota with sheltering and other support.
The National Guard Armories in Olivia and Marshall were opened for any stranded travelers.
The strong steady wind, which kept new snow airborne, made it difficult for snow plow operators to keep roads clear.
"In this wind it's pretty tough," said Steve Lindgren, shop foreman for the Kandiyohi County Highway Department. Crews spent the day putting sand on intersections and clearing out drifts.
Renville County didn't even send their plows out Monday because of near whiteout conditions that began early in the morning.
"It wouldn't have done any good," said Kevin Sing, Renville County highway superintendent.
Besides fighting a no-win battle with snow drifts that quickly filled in, Sing said plows would've simply created another traffic hazard. Local emergency crews had been responding to accidents, he said.
Kari Gislason, Tribune assistant advertising manager, drove to her home in Renville in a total whiteout.
"It's really hard to see and that's what makes it so dangerous. You'd meet cars and you wouldn't see them until they were right there," she said. "There were cars traveling in little caravans and everybody had their flashers on.''
Gislason's car suffered minor damage when she was rear-ended as she waited to make a turn.
A drive that normally takes 20 minutes took an hour for Tribune warehouseman Vern Seeman of Clara City.
"There were spots where I was driving on the rumble strips. That way, I knew where I was on the road," Seeman said. "I haven't done that for a long time and it just wasn't a fun trip.''
School superintendents were forced to close their schools for the day.
"It boils down to that we want to keep kids safe and we want to get them home," Willmar School Superintendent Dr. Jerry Kjergaard said.
Buses taking rural Willmar students home were turned back and students returned to school buildings where they were either picked up by parents or sent to "snow homes."
A Montevideo school bus reportedly got stuck while taking students home.
Along with making the difficult decision about whether to let school out early or not is making sure families are aware children are being sent home.
The Willmar School District's new Campus Messenger system was put to the test let parents know about the early closing.
The automated computer system made about 4,200 calls in less than ½ hour, Kjergaard said.
The minor glitches in the system pertained mostly to incorrect telephone numbers, Kjergaard said. "But a great majority of the phone calls were absolutely correct."
Paul Carlson, superintendent at New London-Spicer, said bus drivers there were put on alert early Monday morning when blizzard conditions were first predicted.
After communicating with the bus company, weather forecasters and superintendents from districts in the western part of the state, Carlson said the decision was made to close school and call for the buses to come back to the school before noon.
"There's a very small window of opportunity to send your kids home," he said.
Road crews are expected to be back plowing roads this morning.
Tribune reporter David Little contributed to this story.