MINNEAPOLIS (AP/WCCO) — Gov. Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency Thursday after a spring snowstorm heaped more headaches on the southwest corner of Minnesota, where communities are still struggling to restore power following an ice storm earlier in the week.

Dayton signed an emergency executive order aimed at speeding relief efforts to the storm area. The order exempts trucks and drivers transporting supplies and materials to areas hit by the storm from state regulations regarding hours of service. Drivers providing emergency relief efforts still need to follow other safety regulations.

Dayton earlier activated the state National Guard to help Minnesotans dealing with the storm.

Officials said it may be early next week before electricity is restored in the southwest.

Six to 8 inches of wet snow fell early Thursday on top of the thick layer of ice that accumulated Tuesday night in Nobles and Jackson counties. Most of the main high-voltage transmission lines that feed the area snapped under the weight, leaving no outside sources of power, Nobles Cooperative Electric general manager Rick Burud said.

About 3,200 customers across Nobles County were still in the dark as of Thursday, as were 1,800 customers of Federated Rural Electric in neighboring Jackson County. Many have neither light nor heat; the overnight low was forecast to be 23 degrees.

Even if crews quickly replace the hundreds of broken utility poles and re-string the downed power lines, Burud explained, there still won’t be electricity until the region gets back onto the larger power grid.

“So we’ve got a pretty big mess here,” Burud said with a laugh. “… Probably by Sunday we won’t be laughing as much.”

The city of Worthington, which has about 12,700 residents, was limping by on its own backup diesel generator and rationing power with rolling blackouts.

Scott Hain, general manager of Worthington Public Utilities, said the city has only half the power it needs and that large industrial customers have had to suspend production for the past two days. That includes Worthington’s largest employer, the JBS Swift pork plant, which he said normally slaughters about 19,000 hogs per day. The plant will likely remain shut down Friday, he said.

“It’s been a terrible inconvenience, from our largest employers all the way down to the smallest ones,” Hain said.

Burud hesitated to say when customers can expect to get their power back, but said that ITC Midwest, the main outside transmission line operator serving the area, told local officials it hopes to restore its high-voltage lines by Sunday night.

“At this point, I really can’t tell you,” he said. “All we’re saying is days.”

Elsewhere, heavy snow, sleet and gusty winds tested the patience of morning commuters in the Twin Cities and other communities across southern Minnesota.

The State Patrol said it responded to 296 crashes plus 440 vehicles that either spun out or went off the road from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. While 39 of those accidents involved injuries, the patrol said, nobody was seriously hurt or killed.

Snowfall totals reached as high as 12 inches at Marshall in southwestern Minnesota, while parts of the Twin Cities area received 3 to 6 inches, the National Weather Service said. The storm then crawled north, hitting Duluth around midday with more than 2 inches of snow.

Some children, many of which had the day off from school, were able to enjoy the snow. Ellie Cooper, 4, went sledding. She told WCCO-TV she prayed for the snow to come.

Before the snow arrived, winds gusting above 50 mph knocked out electricity to more than 2,000 Minnesota Power customers in the Duluth area and churned up huge waves along the Lake Superior shoreline.

Another major concern on the southwestern Minnesota prairie Thursday was tree damage.

Tuesday night’s ice storm changed the cityscape in Worthington forever, City Administrator Craig Clark said. It was “raining branches” because of all the ice, he said, and the new snow didn’t help.

Just north of Luverne, the ice storm took down numerous trees and branches at Blue Mounds State Park, leading the Department of Natural Resources to close the campground through April 21.

No campers were in the park during the storm and nobody was injured. The park is home to a herd of about 75 bison, which park manager Craig Beckman said was faring well through the storm. He said their powerful heads act as snowplows to help them reach the prairie grass under the snow.
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