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John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, Published March 01 2012

Leap day blizzard blows through Duluth region; More than an inch of snow per hour falls

A leap day blizzard that blew through the region brought car accidents, power outages, falling trees — one that caused an injury — and blowing snow that made driving treacherous at times.

Wet snow came down at more than an inch an hour most of the morning in Duluth. The official tally at the airport was 9.5 inches as the storm wound down into the evening Wednesday. Other areas had much higher totals, more than a foot east of Hinckley and almost 20 inches in parts of Northwestern Wisconsin.

The National Weather Service reported 19 inches in Butternut, which is in Ashland County in Wisconsin.

Forecasters at one time thought Duluth could be the bull’s-eye of the storm, but much dryer air from the north and high winds off Lake Superior blocked the storm and it sat for a long time over the high snowfall areas, which ran in a line from Hinckley east and into Wisconsin.

Because of the air mass from the north, areas expected to get a lot of snow such as Brainerd and the Iron Range got 3 or fewer inches. Ten inches fell in areas around Two Harbors up the North Shore but only traces of snow could be found past the Lake and Cook County line.

Snow didn’t hit Duluth until about 4 a.m., hours after it was predicted, but it still virtually shut the city down for most of the day.

The Duluth Transit Authority canceled all routes after 11 a.m. except for the main lines along Superior Street and Grand Avenue between Lester Park and New Duluth.

Many businesses were closed or had shortened hours. All schools in the region were closed.

Minnesota Power reported dozens of outages, especially in the Twin Ports, including a major outage affecting about 4,500 customers in Superior and other scattered outages affecting more than 200 customers, mostly in western Duluth. Most of the outages were small, caused by tree limbs falling on lines.

A Moose Lake man shoveling snow from his driveway was slightly injured when he was struck by part of a poplar tree that broke off. Moose Lake Police Chief Bryce Bogenholm said the man was knocked unconscious by the tree but regained consciousness and was expected to be OK.

The Duluth Police Department said it dealt with only 15 accidents from 6 p.m. Tuesday and into Wednesday night. None of them were serious.

“I was actually pretty surprised,” Sgt. Brad Wick said. “I think a lot of people were just not going anywhere, at least early in the day. Those that had to go out had to go for a purpose. Otherwise, people were just staying home.”

State Patrol officers in Minnesota and Wisconsin had an uneventful day as people heeded warnings and stayed off the roads. There were a few accidents and cars in ditches reported in Minnesota, and U.S. Highway 2 across Wisconsin was closed for a time Wednesday.

In Superior, high winds caused a power line to snap and cross another line, causing the major outage, said Amy Rutledge, manager of corporate communications for Minnesota Power. Electric power was restored to most Superior customers by 3:30 p.m. Workers were hampered by the “intense wind,” she said. Power to most Duluth customers was back on by 3 p.m.

On South Street in Duluth along Lake Superior, a high-voltage line came down in the wind and fell across a pickup truck in a driveway, sparking a small fire. Firefighters had to wait for electricity to be disconnected before they could douse smoldering tires. Other trees and lines were down across Duluth and Superior.

The Duluth Fire Department helped get people out of a stalled elevator in West Duluth when power went out there. Firefighters also helped pull a television news truck out of the snow on Skyline Parkway. The crew from KARE-11 in the Twin Cities area was trying to get a shot of Duluth from the ridge.

The wind created some damage in downtown Duluth. Pieces of siding broke off the AT&T tower on First Street and landed in the alley behind the building, said Kelly Fleissner, maintenance operations manager for the city. Fleissner said city workers were able to remove the debris before it created any problems.

Duluth City Hall closed Wednesday morning, as did courts in Duluth and Carlton. The University of Minnesota Duluth, the College of St. Scholastica, Duluth public and charter schools and dozens of other offices and events also were closed.

Some highways were closed in some spots, including U.S. Highways 2 and 53 in Wisconsin.

Wind gusts Wednesday morning hit 65 mph on the Blatnik Bridge and 56 mph at Sky Harbor and at Duluth International Airport. Impressive waves were pummeling the Duluth shoreline of Lake Superior, where a gale warning was posted.

Fleissner said plow operators were doing their best to keep main thoroughfares passable during the storm’s height, but the wind and snow made it difficult.

“With this kind of wind and this rate of snow, 1 to 2 inches per hour, there are visibility problems out there. The wind is filling in behind us as we plow. It’s an ongoing battle,” Fleissner said.

The Duluth airport was technically open, but daytime flights were canceled.

“Our guys are keeping the runway open but two flights have canceled and I’d guess we may see more,’’ said Brian Ryks, director of Duluth International Airport in the afternoon. He was expecting things to get back to normal as the storm left the area.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday evening that areas along Lake Superior on the North Shore and in Wisconsin could get a few additional inches of snow overnight but the storm and its winds would be out of the area by Thursday morning.

There could be a few flurries the next few days and some sunshine is expected by Sunday. High temperatures are expected to be above freezing today and Friday.