The sign outside Spring Grove Communications registered -22 shortly after 8:00 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 6.
The sign outside Spring Grove Communications registered -22 shortly after 8:00 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 6.

When the whole state of Minnesota cancels school, it's cold.

Governor Mark Dayton announced last Friday that all K-12 public schools would be closed on Monday, Jan. 6, as an arctic front of monumental intensity descended on the state. According to the National Weather Service (NWS) in La Crosse, the coldest air to hit southeastern Minnesota since February of 1996 was on the way. Wind chills from -40 to -60 were expected from Sunday night through Tuesday morning, and actual lows well into the -20's were expected on Sunday and Monday nights. Daytime "highs" on Monday weren't expected to top -16.

Temperatures will likely remain below zero for nearly 96 hours, NWS personnel reported. Frostbite can occur in as little as five minutes under those extremes. Even simple car exhaust can freeze on roadways, creating slick spots.

"We were pleased with Gov. Dayton's decision," Spring Grove public schools superintendent Rachel Udstuen said on Friday. "Student safety is our number one priority. I appreciate the governor calling this three days in advance so we can get the word out."

"We're not just looking at temperatures, we're looking at wind chill. There's no school, no practices, no games, anything on Monday. As far as Tuesday, we'll keep people posted."

"It gives us the chance to put the word out before kids leave school today... We don't want kids driving or walking to school on days when it's this dangerous. Invariably we have a kid show up at school. We just don't want those kids out on Monday morning."

"Sometimes kids think that dressing warmly just means a heavier sweatshirt. If you have a -40 wind chill schools are usually closing, but it could happen before we get that cold, too. We don't really have a hard and fast rule as far as temperatures."

Udstuen said that she consults with neighboring districts when it comes to cancellations. The owner of Schmitz school bus service is always on her call list as well, just to make sure that conditions are safe for young riders.

Houston County emergency coordinator Kurt Kuhlers reported that the lower level of the Justice Center in Caledonia will be set up as an emergency warming shelter for those in need, beginning Sunday, Jan. 5, through Tuesday, Jan. 7.

Paul Morken serves as Spring Grove's public utilities director. Weather extremes are a challenge for his crew as well.

"Every (city) building has to have the heaters checked, and we'll add more insulation where we need it," Morken said. "We'll have to try to block the wind in some cases, too."

"Vehicles have to be ready for calls. We have to keep all of our tanks full and have the proper blend in the diesels. We've got to make sure we've got all our equipment prepared."

"There's only one place in town that has a generator, and that's the hospital. So if we have an outage in an area of town, we've either got to hustle to get it fixed or people are going to have to move to the hospital or someplace similar to stay warm."

Morken added that he plans to talk to city leaders about installing a generator at the Fest Building for emergencies.

"If a section of town is out of power for six hours or so, those people are going to be freezing," he noted. "There's always something that can go wrong, like a water main break. We've already had a couple of them this year. When it gets really cold, the frost in the ground moves more."

"We also hope the fire department doesn't have to go out in this weather. They'd have freeze-ups and we'd have to go out with salt and sand... and when it gets this cold, salt really doesn't work."

Police chief Paul Folz said severe cold weather often brings calls for safety checks by his department, as neighbors grow concerned about shut-ins.

"It puts stress on everything," Folz continued. "Not only the humans, but machinery gets stressed. And when you put things under stress, that's when they break."

"Everything that we carry, either life-saving or law-enforcement wise, has an operating temperature. If it's outside those parameters, that equipment may not work.... A good example is the automatic external defibrillators we carry. Sitting in a trunk or back seat of a patrol car, they get cold. People should realize that we will have to keep the cars running a little more in this weather. I would hate to be in the middle of my shift and have some sort of a cardiac emergency and not be able to use the machine.

The NWS compared this blast of chill air to an "arctic outbreak" that occurred on and around Jan. 18, 1994. Rochester hit -29 during that episode, while La Crosse registered -31. Wind chills went as low as -56 in Rochester and -48 in La Crosse. There was one death due to hypothermia in Minnesota, while several persons got frostbite. Numerous water pipes froze. Minnesota closed all schools, while most Wisconsin and Iowa schools also shut down. Heat and power failed in numerous homes, and record levels of natural gas and heating oil were consumed.