By Dan Nienaber
---- — MANKATO — Hundreds of southern Minnesota residents learned the hard way Thursday and Friday that it's wise to listen to law enforcement officers when they urge drivers to stay off roads unless travel is absolutely necessary.
"We've been cleaning up all day," Sgt. Jacalyn Sticha said as she was patrolling a highway Friday afternoon in Nicollet County. "The roads are clear of the big piles of snow now, so they can get through, but the roads are still slippery."
The roads in the State Patrol's Mankato District weren't clear Thursday night and early Friday morning. Troopers responded to 276 cars that went off the road and 17 property damage crashes, including seven rollovers. Two of the crashes involved injuries. Another 284 cars went off the road in the Rochester District with 49 property damage crashes, including nine rollovers.
Portions of major highways in the Mankato area had been closed, so there were drivers who had to wait in their vehicles for awhile before plow truck drivers or troopers could get to them, Sticha said. Traffic was backed up for a mile or two on Highway 15 near Lafayette at one point Friday because cars and semi tractors and trailers were blocking the road.
Closed highways and drifted county roads didn't stop BENCO Electric Cooperative workers from getting out Thursday night and restoring power for their customers. Twenty-one two-person crews, 15 from BENCO Electric and six more called over from Brown County, were out working by 6 p.m. They were still working more than 12 hours later.
It didn't matter to them that portions of many roads had become impassable for most drivers in their passenger vehicles, said Mike Heidemann, BENCO operations manager. Power lines had to be repaired to get customers hooked back up to the grid.
"We have four-wheel drive bucket trucks and diggers and we definitely used them last night," he said. "We needed every four-wheel drive we could get — and good tires."
What electric power employees refer to as "galloping lines" were the prime problem caused by the wintry weather, Heidemann said. Ice gathers on the lines and spreads to make a sort of sail. When the wind blows against the iced lines, they start bouncing up and down violently. That galloping can disconnect lines or even blow poles over.
Some tall steel transmission lines, carrying 69,000 volts of power, had to be repaired to get five substations working properly, Heidemann said. Then BENCO's smaller service lines, carrying about 12,500 volts, were fixed to get electricity back to their customers.
"It's been brutal," he said. "This is one of the worst winter storms we've had in awhile. We're running pretty thin, but we want to get everyone's power back. Now that it's daylight, things are going more quickly."
About 7 inches of snow fell in the Mankato area. It was strong, steady winds and blowing snow that made the roads icy and hazardous Thursday, Sticha said. Drivers should continue to be cautious through the weekend and maybe into next week, depending on the weather, she said.
There were about 40 more crashes that Blue Earth County sheriff's deputies responded to Wednesday night and Thursday morning. In Mankato, police officers responded to 27 crashes during a 24-hour period starting Thursday morning.
There were more than 300 tickets issued to people who didn't move their vehicles off the roads for Mankato's snow emergency, said City Manager Pat Hentges. More than 100 vehicles were towed, but fewer vehicles were towed than during the last snow emergency, he said.
It also was the first time the city put down its new safety gates on Stadium Road and Monks and Parkway avenues. The gates blocked traffic from using the hill portion of those streets from 7:30 p.m. Thursday until 5 a.m. Friday.