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Kristen M. Daum and Dave Roepke, Forum staff writers, Published December 26 2009

Whiteout Christmas: Record-breaking snowstorm should begin waning by noon

Friday likely wasn’t the white Christmas everyone had been dreaming of.

High winds and record snowfall created blizzard-like conditions throughout the Red River Valley, closing Interstate 94 in North Dakota and Interstate 29 from Canada to Iowa.

About a foot of snow fell on Fargo since the storm began Wednesday, with a half-foot just on Friday by 6 p.m. That dropped on the half-foot of snow from the two prior days, with 3 to 5 more inches expected overnight and today.

“There’s still quite a bit of snow upstream yet to come,” said Mark Ewens, a National Weather Service meteorologist at the Grand Forks, N.D., bureau.

The storm should begin tapering off by the time the blizzard warning expires at noon. Winds are expected to die down from the 25-to-35-mph range and flurries should diminish going into the afternoon hours, according to the weather service forecast.

Plows on North Dakota’s two interstates were pulled Friday during the day in the face of heavy drifting. The state Department of Transportation said plows will be sent back out early today, though it’s not clear how long it will take for I-29 and I-94 to reopen.

The storm broke Fargo’s record for heftiest Christmas Day snowfall, a mark nearly a century old. In 1912, Fargo got 3.6 inches, an amount easily eclipsed by noon, according to the weather service.

Fargo-Moorhead seemed like a ghost town Friday, as authorities advised against any travel and winds whipped snow into whiteouts at times. Most families were stranded for the day, and hundreds of churches called off their services.

Public works crews were out cleaning emergency routes in Fargo and Moorhead throughout the day, and they’re expected to continue today.

“They will be working through the weekend to keep the roads clear,” said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, who added that he was out Christmas morning checking on the status of the roads.

“I let them do their own thing; they do a good job,” he said.

Weather problems also affected flights arriving at and departing from Fargo’s Hector International Airport. At least four flights were canceled and a half-dozen were delayed Friday, according to the airport’s Web site.

Frightful weather didn’t stop some area residents from venturing out. Local police dispatchers reported several stalled vehicles on city roads throughout the day and a couple of rollovers, but no major accidents.

In Minnesota, during the eight-hour period ending at 2 p.m. Friday, state troopers responded to 265 vehicles off the road and 11 crashes resulting in injury.

For the few businesses open Friday, crowds were far thinner than on a usual Christmas.

“It’s been considerably less than last year, but they’re still coming.” said Derek Pickop, manager at Century 10 Cinema in Fargo. “We’re letting the business and weather dictate how long we’re open.”

Pickop said he’s anticipating Century 10 to be open during regular hours today if the weather improves as expected.

The area’s largest retail center is planning to delay its opening but is playing it by ear. West Acres Shopping Center expects to open at 11 a.m., three hours later than planned. That gives shoppers safer daylight hours to hit the day-after-Christmas sales, manager Rusty Papachek said.

Officials are planning to open the mall at 11 a.m., but a final decision will be made this morning, depending on the weather conditions, he said.

Either way, Papachek expects crowds to be much lighter than is typical.

“On a normal day without weather to contend with, it would’ve been a very busy Saturday,” Papachek said. “Right now it’ll be slower. It’ll still be a decent day, but nothing like it would’ve been without snow.”

But the business impact of a holiday blizzard could have been much worse if it happened sooner, he added.

“We could’ve gotten something like this on the Saturday before Christmas, which would have impacted a lot more than what it’s going to,” Papachek said.


Forum photographer Carrie Snyder contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporters Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541 and Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535