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How cold was it? Area shuts down for two days due to extreme cold snap

The temperature on the sign at Gate City Bank in Alexandria read 32 below zero Wednesday morning. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)1 / 4
Traffic was light throughout the day Wednesday in Alexandria. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)2 / 4
Hunter Hastings (left) tries to jump start a car for his brother, Dahlton, on Jefferson Street in Alexandria Wednesday afternoon. Temperatures Wednesday never got warmer than about 20 below zero. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)3 / 4
Thermometers all over the region were put to the test this week by a brutal cold spell. (Contributed)4 / 4

For two days, it was too cold for kids to go to school. Too cold to skate at Noonan Park. Businesses closed early, or didn't open at all. Tractors wouldn't start. The mail didn't go.

Call it the Great January Freeze of 2019, the week that bitter winds and brutal temperatures kept all but the hardiest Minnesotans indoors.

Raw air temperatures dropped to at least 30 below zero overnight, while winds made it feel closer to 60 below. Even daylight didn't bring much relief, as temperatures dropped under 20 below during the day Tuesday and remained under that mark until Thursday .

The sun itself seemed frozen, pouring a sickly yellow light from a hazy sky. Wind blew rivers of snow across roads, and carved commas into snowbanks. Cars crept stiffly through town, and pedestrians walked with their backs to the wind.

Reacting to the cold

"Last night was brutal," dairy farmer Larry Lund of Brandon said Wednesday. He had to bring three cows into a barn to calve this week. Normally, the cows do better calving outside, but on Tuesday and Wednesday, newborn calves were almost sure to die outdoors.

In Osakis, the creamery discovered that indeed, molasses is pretty slow in January.

The molasses it stores in a giant tank to mix with feed simply wouldn't flow out the spigot, forcing the creamery to buy a 2,000-pound tote of molasses to store in a heated area, said mill manager Leon Vetsch. They were hoping the tote would be thawed enough by morning to use.

At Countryside Heating and Air Conditioning, about 40 people had called Tuesday and Wednesday, saying they had no heat, said office secretary Danielle Hanson.

Often, the culprit is frozen gas regulators or exhaust pipes, she said.

"(With) a lot of people on the lakes, the wind from the lakes can cause a lot of issues," she said.

While waiting for repairs, most homeowners were able to rely on plug-in heaters, and one was able to wait in a neighbor's house, she said.

Sewer lines froze up in places, including at Mark Lee Asphalt and Paving, where workers thawed the line with hot water.

Apparently people heeded the warnings about the cold, said Alomere Health spokesman Edward Reif.

"Our Emergency Department has not seen an influx of ill patients and no reports of people coming in due to the frigid conditions," he said.

The cold led some patients to cancel elective surgery, while others couldn't make it in because their vehicles wouldn't start, he said.

"Overall, we would like to commend everyone on being safe during this dangerous cold spell, and we encourage people to continue to make wise decisions when dealing with cold weather," Reif said.

Closing down

All area school districts shut down for Tuesday and Wednesday and cancelled all activities, and some delayed starts for Thursday. Alexandria Technical and Community College even closed Tuesday and Wednesday, and it had plenty of company.

The Runestone Museum closed. The Village Family Service Center in Alexandria closed. The Senior Center closed. So did Mid-States Hydraulic in Alexandria. YMCA members needed to get their workouts in early; it closed at noon Wednesday, including not just the workout facility, but YMCA Child Care as well.

Alexandria's federal Social Security office, shuttered by politics for about a month until Monday, closed again Wednesday, this time felled temporarily by the brutal weather. The office directed visitors to its website, www.ssa.gov.

Remarkably, even the U.S. Postal Service — the agency that "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" keeps from its rounds — suspended mail delivery for Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota on Wednesday due to the dangerous wind chills.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation urged drivers to check road conditions prior to travel, to check batteries and fuel levels before hitting the road, to drive more slowly, use headlights, and if possible, to consider staying home.

The Noonan Park warming house was closed Wednesday and was expected to return to normal hours on Thursday.

"We are encouraging people to stay in and stay safe," the city said in a news release.

Forging ahead

Livestock farmers don't have the luxury of staying indoors. In Miltona, Gary Mrnak was heading outdoors every half hour during the day to make sure the waterer for his beef cattle didn't freeze.

"About the only thing he had showing were his eyeballs," said his wife, Bev. "He bundled up really good, he had his bib overalls and his heavy coat and a facemask."

Still, he had to shed his heavy chopper mittens to tinker with the watering system, a wet job that numbed his fingers while he knelt on snow and ice.

Losing livestock is a concern during the winter as it is year round, Bev said. The cattle do have a shed to go into and straw for bedding.

"He babies the livestock," she said. "If he could put diapers on them I'm sure he would."

Though schools were closed, Andrew Steiner, an agriculture teacher at Alexandria Area High School, found himself going in anyway on Tuesday. There were plants in the greenhouse and he needed to water them. The plants were doing OK, he said, though the heaters were working hard.

"I don't see the bills for that and I'm glad I don't," he said.

As difficult as it was to imagine mid-week, all of these hardships are looking to be temporary. A string of several straight days where the temperature didn't climb past zero was forecast to end Friday, and Sunday's high could well surpass the freezing mark, leaving this historic cold spell as an indelible memory.

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