A little fun before the…blizzard

Lots of snow and 45 mph winds for today

Photo by Jenny Kirk On Wednesday afternoon, Marshall youth, from left, Clayton Jones, Lexington Conway and Elijah Conway enjoy some outdoor time on a giant snow hill in the neighborhood that is nearly as high as the houses.

MARSHALL — Dangerous weather conditions caught many Marshall area drivers off-guard on Tuesday and while there was a small reprieve on Wednesday, a blizzard warning is projected to create even more difficult travel conditions today.

The National Weather Service’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, office issued a blizzard warning in effect from 9 a.m. today until midnight tonight for Lyon County. NWS Observing Program Leader Brad Adams said the previous winter weather advisory was upgraded to the blizzard warning because of the reduced visibility and increasingly hazardous travel abilities which are likely to be worse because of the heavier-than-anticipated snowfall on Tuesday.

“It’s not so much the amount of snow forecasted, but the impact of the snow and the wind combined,” Adams said. “Near whiteout conditions are expected, with visibility of less than a quarter of a mile. Obviously, we had quite a bit of snow (Tuesday), so even some of the snow on the ground will be blowing around. The wind will really be an issue.”

Total snow accumulations for southwest Minnesota are between 2-4 inches, with winds gusting as high as 45 miles per hour today.

“The winds will be cranked up by daybreak (today),” Adams said. “They’re projected to be between 20-30 miles per hour. By (this afternoon and evening), wind gusts are expected to be between 30-40 miles per hour.”

The severe winter conditions expected also include dangerously cold wind chills as low as 30 below zero. At that temperature, frostbite on exposed skin can occur in as little as 10 minutes, according to the NWS.

“We’re in the dead of winter,” Adams said. “The weather pattern is pretty active.”

Adams said the system is expected to diminish sometime throughout the morning on Friday.

“By daybreak, the winds are still in the 15-25 miles per hour range,” he said. “The system will exit sometime later Friday morning. Unfortunately, we’ll be ushering in another round of arctic cold, so Friday’s high is -2 degrees.”

Area administrators have been tasked with making difficult calls this week due to the severe winter weather — similar weather conditions forced many school districts in southwest Minnesota to close for three straight days last week.

“It’s not always an easy decision,” Lakeview Superintendent Chris Fenske said. “Schools go a lot by the forecasts. We also talk to other districts.”

Of its nine routes, Lakeview had four school buses get stuck on Tuesday afternoon. The district contracts with Palmer Bus Service out of Mankato.

“It wasn’t fun (on Tuesday),” Fenske said. “One bus got stuck but got itself out. One bus was assisted by the city of Wood Lake and was able to continue with the route. Another bus was helped by a farmer and his tractor and there was one bus that needed to be towed out.”

Fenske said an email was sent out as school was dismissing on Tuesday, telling parents to expect delays. When the buses got stuck, he said the drivers, along with the help of school secretaries, began contacting families.

“Everyone was caught off-guard (Tuesday),” he said. “Each district gets a weather report from Sioux Falls when bad weather is coming. We really didn’t have one (Tuesday). They had forecasted 2-3 inches of snow and we didn’t have the winds or cold, all of which superintendents take into account.”

Some areas around Marshall recorded up to eight or nine inches of snow on Tuesday, making travel extremely tough, especially for bus drivers. Marshall Public Schools, which contracts with Southwest Coaches for busing, had two buses turn around and come back to the Marshall Middle School.

“It got to the point where the drivers couldn’t see the road well enough to keep going, so we had them come to the middle school,” MPS Superintendent Scott Monson said. “Then we contacted the parents of the students on those buses and had them come pick the students up or make arrangements to have someone else pick them up.”

While various people from the district and Southwest Coaches made phone calls, Monson said the students were herded into the cafeteria.

“With staff supervising, the kids played some games and did homework, but mainly it was about keeping the kids safe,” Monson said. “It took awhile to contact parents.”

Monson said the forecast was monitored throughout the day on Tuesday, noting that 1-3 inches of snow was expected.

“It was supposed to stop at 3 p.m.,” he said. “That was consistently forecast. And at 3:09, I got an email from the National Weather System that we were getting 5-6 inches and keep snowing. It was a challenging situation.”

Had he known earlier, Monson said school may have been dismissed early. Along with the two buses that turned back, he said there were other bus routes that were delayed.

“It caught a lot of people off-guard,” he said. “Other schools had buses in the ditch or brought them back to the school. I heard one was in an accident. It’s challenging and frustrating, but we couldn’t change it at that point in time. All we could do is bring those buses back, make sure the kids were taken care of, reach out to parents and work to make accommodations to get them home safely.”

Monson said he’s grateful for the dedicated bus drivers as well as the staff members and administrators who stayed late to help.

Most Marshall area schools started two hours late on Wednesday. Then as the day went on, conditions worsened, forcing schools to dismiss early in the afternoon.

“It was the combination of three things,” Monson said. “We’ve got several inches of fluffy snow sitting there and then forecasts for winds started increasing, with gusts getting up to 20 mph at 3 p.m. Up till then, it was nine, 10, 11 miles per hour. The third aspect was that the winter weather advisory went into effect at 3 o’clock (p.m.). We’d rather be proactive and get the kids, families and staff home safely.”

Fenske also said safety is always the top priority, noting that as much information is gathered as possible in order to make appropriate decisions.

“(Wednesday), we knew we were in a winter weather advisory and given the amount of snowfall (Tuesday) and the lightness of the snow, we knew it wouldn’t take much wind to cause problems,” Fenske said. “Closing school isn’t done quickly, though. There’s a lot of communication that needs to occur.”

Fenske and Monson both said they try to give parents and staff as much warning as possible regarding school disruptions.

“Whenever possible, we like to let families know the night before so they can make plans,” Monson said. “They’re talking about 35 miles per hour (today) with the blizzard warning. Unless the forecast changes, there’s no way we can have students, families and staff out with blizzard conditions.”

Fenske said today’s decision would hinge primarily on the wind.

“Until we can get some warmer weather to help crust over the snow, the snow is going to blow,” he said.

As of 9 p.m. Wednesday, several area schools announced they would be closed today. The list includes: Ivanhoe, Lake Benton Elementary, Lakeview, Lynd, Marshall public and parochial schools, Milroy, Minneota, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton and Tracy Area public and parochial schools.