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Associated Press, Published February 29 2012

Winter storm closes Minn. schools, state offices

DULUTH, Minn. — State offices were closed Wednesday in five counties hit particularly hard by a late winter snowstorm.

Minnesota Management & Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter declared a weather emergency and closed executive branch offices in Aitkin, Pine, Carlton, St. Louis and Lake counties. Courthouses were also closed in those counties.

The storm prompted classes to be canceled in dozens of school districts, and University of Minnesota campuses in Duluth and Morris also shut down.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for much of Minnesota through Wednesday evening. The heaviest snow is expected in the central region. About a foot of snow fell at Alexandria and Douglas, and there were about 8 inches at Sauk Centre.

Spirit Mountain ski resort in Duluth — a business that might welcome the new snow — was closed Wednesday because 40 mph winds made conditions on the slopes dangerous.

Xcel Energy said there were widespread power outages across the state, with about 16,000 customers without service. State troopers were busy responding to dozens of crashes on state highways.

The National Weather Service posted a blizzard warning for the Twin Ports as the storm whipped up winds gusting to more than 60 mph at the head of Lake Superior. Snow was falling at more than an inch an hour and caused near-whiteout conditions. City officials in Duluth urged residents to stay off the roads as plows attempted to keep up with blowing and drifting snow.

"Even if you manage to get in to work today, you might not be able to make it back home," said Kelly Fleissner, manager of maintenance operations for the city.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is advising against travel on Interstate 35 and state Highway 23 south from Duluth.

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.