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First snow also brings first blizzard of winter

A tree on the northeast corner of the intersection of Trott Avenue and Ninth Avenue Southwest in Willmar was one casualty Friday morning of the winter storm that blew through west central Minnesota. Winds were the major problem: blowing snow reduced visibilitly and snarled travel, and power outages were widespread. (Briana Sanchez / Tribune)

WILLMAR — Barreling winds and blowing snow Friday brought a flurry of traffic hiccups and power outages to west central Minnesota, the weather worsening as the day developed.

Related story: No travel advisories lifted Saturday morning in southwestern Minnesota

An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 customers with the Kandiyohi Power Cooperative were without power Friday morning due to the blizzard. Another 4,000 Xcel Energy customers in the west central region were also without power as of noon Friday, according to information from the utility. In a news release, Xcel said power may not be restored to some of its customers until Saturday, citing hazardous road conditions and limited visibility slowing down repairs.

Strong winds knocked together lines and caused the outages, according to Scott Luberts, line superintendent with Kandiyohi Power Cooperative. The first outage on the cooperative's system occurred around 9:30 a.m. when a feeder line serving two substations within the system went out. As crews dealt with that outage, winds disrupted service on lines to other substations. Five substations were down after 11 a.m.

The outage affected customers in the communities and rural areas surrounding Kandiyohi, Lake Lillian, Raymond, Spicer and rural Willmar. Xcel Energy was reporting outages to customers in the New London, Montevideo, Clara City, Bird Island and Paynesville areas. Crews were responding as quickly as they could, said Matt Lindstrom, spokesman for Xcel in Minneapolis. Luberts said Friday morning that it was not possible to estimate when power would be restored. He anticipated that power outage issues would continue Friday afternoon, with winds expected to pick up in intensity, whipping lines together and knocking down tree branches.

The crews were responding as they can, but were dealing with a number of problem areas, including a power pole that went down near Svea.

Residents in some of the affected areas reported power had been restored by Friday afternoon and early evening.

In Olivia, several electricity fuses blew around 9:30 a.m., blacking out power several times to one part of the town. Repairs were made, and there were no other major issues, according to the city's public works department.

By Friday afternoon, snowplows were pulled from the roads in several counties due to near-zero visibility from the quickly accumulating snow.

At 5 p.m., as much as 8 inches of snow had fallen in northwest Kandiyohi County, according to Tom Hultquist of the National Weather Service. The southeast part of the county had 4 to 5 inches. Yellow Medicine, Lac qui Parle, and Chippewa tallied 6 to 9 inches.

Though the snowfall totals in the region were high, it wasn't the most in the state. In Leader, located near Brainerd in Cass County, a total of 20 inches of snow was reported.

Harsh wind gusts also impacted the travel conditions Friday. Montevideo and Appleton recorded gusts as high as 52 mph Friday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. To the north, Alexandria recorded a 53 mph wind gust at 2:13 p.m. Friday.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation issued a no-travel advisory for nearly the entire region, including Kandiyohi County, Chippewa County, Lincoln County, Lyon County, Meeker County, Murray County, Lac qui Parle County, Pipestone County and Yellow Medicine County.

"Very slippery conditions," said Denny Marty, maintenance supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "They're trying to put salt on (the roads), but we're not having any luck."

Many drivers followed those guidelines. Classes were cancelled at Ridgewater College, and schools were closed in most area school districts.

Some did not or could not refrain from travel. By 4 p.m., the State Patrol reported at least 340 vehicle crashes and 559 spinouts. Two were fatal. One of the fatal crashes happened in Murray County, about 30 miles south of Marshall.

According to Sgt. Jesse Grabow, as of 6 p.m., 93 crashes — 12 with non-life-threatening injuries — had happened in the Patrol's St. Cloud region, which includes Kandiyohi, Meeker, Swift, Pope, Stearns and Big Stone counties.

As many as 191 vehicles were towed in the region after spinouts.

Near the Nest Lake Bridge on state Highway 23 just north of Spicer, traffic backed up to a standstill for a half an hour.

A snowplow there was temporarily immobilized shortly before 1 p.m. due to continuous traffic on the highway, Marty said.

"He's not stuck," he said. "He just can't get out because of traffic."

Melting and freezing snow made for slick roads in the region. Because of that, it was difficult for many drivers to safely move past the plows.

Marty said drivers should continue to leave plows room to work to avoid similar situations. MnDOT guidelines suggest drivers should leave five car lengths between their vehicle and a plow.

At 5:15 p.m. Friday, Hultquist said the storm was winding down. Snowfall was expected to taper off in the evening.

Still, with plows pulled off the roads, and continuing wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph, low visibility was expected Friday night into Saturday morning, the Weather Service said, with possible blowing and drifting snow.

A Tribune reader from Lucan said it took him more than two hours Friday afternoon to make what is usually a 20- to 25-minute trip home from Marshall on state Highway 19. He said in an email that had nearly ended up in the ditch, and he recommended no travel Friday night.

An overturned semi blocked U.S. Highway 212 for about an hour Friday evening west of Hector, according to MnDOT.

MnDOT's 511 traveler information website continued to show crashes and spinouts in the region Friday night.

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