BISMARCK, N.D. – An early winter storm that blasted in from the Rockies dumped heavy snow across the region, knocking out power to thousands and forcing National Guard soldiers to rescue stranded motorists.
Up to 2 feet of snow had fallen by Wednesday night in parts of North Dakota, with winds gusting to 50 mph.
A blizzard warning was in effect through Thursday for the Devils Lake area in the north-central part of the state. In Wyoming, schools in a number of communities were either closed or delayed because of snowfall and blackouts.
"It is, on our records, probably one of the earliest ones, as far as our recorded history goes, in 126, 130 years," said Sam Walker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (search) in Bismarck.
The snowfall caused trees to snap or sag into power lines, sparking widespread outages. Blackouts were reported in parts of eastern Montana and in the Black Hills (search) of South Dakota. At least 11,000 customers were affected.
As much as 11 inches of snow had fallen in southeastern Montana Wednesday. Billings had received 10.8 inches, National Weather Service meteorologist Tom Humphrey said.
The Montana Department of Transportation said blowing and drifting snow contributed to the closure of portions of two highways in eastern Montana — U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate 94. Parts of I-94 were also closed in North Dakota.
"It's really treacherous — heavy, deep snow. Visibility is just really poor. It's so heavy that vehicles just can't push through it," North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Bethke said.
Ten National Guard soldiers with heavy equipment joined crews from the state Transportation Department and the Highway Patrol in rescuing stranded people.
In Minot, a shelter also was set up at an old armory. The Minot Air Force Base (search) required only essential personnel to report for duty.
William Jordan, of Conway, N.C., spent Wednesday night at the Dickinson State University student union, where he and about 60 other people stranded on buses for hours got hot meals, cots and a free T-shirt, courtesy of university students.
"This place, North Dakota, is terrible, man," he said. "It's cold."
The storm came just a few days after North Dakota had temperatures in the 90s. Warmer weather was forecast to return in the coming days.