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Law enforcement responds to more than 50 rescue calls as storm slams Upper Midwest

Winter storm heading East ahead of New Year's Eve
Winter storm heading East ahead of New Year's... 01:45

A fierce winter storm that created blizzard conditions in parts of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota shut down interstates and led to hundreds of vehicle crashes on Monday morning. The storm brought a metropolitan area of more than 200,000 people to a standstill. 

North Dakota Highway Patrol Captain Bryan Niewand said law enforcement responded to more than 50 rescue calls, most from people who drove on secondary roads because the interstates were shut down. Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said some stranded travelers spent the night at a church in Page, northwest of Fargo.

Snow wasn't the only issue during the weekend blast. Freezing rain on Saturday caused nearly 500 crashes on Minnesota roads and caused Metro Transit bus service to shut down in the Twin Cities, the first interruption of service in eight years.

Residents in the Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, area who are used to snowstorms were told to stay home after a foot of heavy, wet snow fell on top of a sheet of ice, which made travel difficult and stoked early fears about spring flooding.

"This is one [of] the worst storms we've had, just because we had ice on the bottom of it and we received several more inches than we expected," said Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney. "We're telling people to be patient. Help your neighbor if you can. If you can make it a little easier for them to get around, please do that."

While the blizzard warnings were allowed to expire in the Dakotas and some portions of the interstate highways were allowed to open, the storm continued to linger in the region. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning in northeastern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where periods of heavy snow and gusty winds were expected to create difficult travel conditions.

Forecasters predicted 10 to 14 inches of snow along Lake Superior's south shore. Wind gusts topping 60 mph whipped up waves that crashed over shoreline barriers in Duluth and Grand Marais, Minnesota, causing localized flooding Sunday.

Greg Gust, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Grand Forks, North Dakota, said the heaviest band of snow fell from Watertown, South Dakota, through the Red River Valley corridor in eastern North Dakota, where snowfall of 18 inches was common. Gust said the highest total so far is 21 inches in Ypsilanti, North Dakota.

Roof collapses were reported in Fargo and Virginia, Minnesota. Gust said the heavy, wet "Igloo snow" was making both driving and shoveling dangerous. He advised that snow clearing be done slowly on Monday, especially since the upcoming week calls for little measurable precipitation and above-normal temperatures.

"It's a lot of heavy snow to move out of the way," Gust said. "People should really take it easy. After that, enjoy the above-zero weather."

Jonathan Wolfe, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Duluth, told the Star Tribune that Sunday's precipitation and winds were just the first round of what he called an unusually strong winter storm. This season is already one of the top five snowiest to date for the area.

It also continued a trend of wet fall and early winter weather in the Red River Valley, where residents have dealt with chronic spring flooding for years. A diversion structure in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which prevents the north-flowing river from flooding the city, opened its floodgates in the fall for the first time, Gust said.

"The spring thaw and rain are always key factors (to a flood)," Gust said. "But we're getting there. It's setting up for a significant event."

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