Atlas throws haymaker
Early season blizzard wreaks havoc
Published: Thursday, October 10th, 2013
Atlas didn’t shrug. He threw a haymaker.
Custer County, and western south Dakota in general, was brought to its knees Oct. 5-6 by the largest fall blizzard to hit western South Dakota in recorded history, as Winter Storm Atlas snapped trees in half, knocked out power and left many people stranded in their homes for much of the weekend. Western South Dakota was, for all intents and purposes, brought to a standstill.
In a scene that resembled a post-apocalytic sci-fi movie, Custer County residents woke early Saturday to find snow measured in feet, not inches, drifts that reached 12 feet tall and roads that were impassable because of the storm. The amount of snow received in the county varied from 18 inches to over three feet.
At 8 a.m. Saturday, the only sounds to be heard in the City of Custer were those of city, county and state vehicles beginning the long chore of making roads drivable again. Below the snow on the roads was a solid sheet of ice created by the nearly two inches of rain that fell before turning to snow. The snow was wet and heavy, boosted by wind gusts up to 70 mph.
Bob Morrison, public works director for the City of Custer, said city crews worked for a while Friday, the day the blizzard really gained steam, came back Friday at 9 p.m. and worked through the night until Saturday at 4 p.m. before returning to work at midnight Sunday morning.
“By that time, all our equipment was busted,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “It was constantly getting stuck. You had to work in pairs almost. It was a mess.”
Morrison said the wet, heavy snow wouldn’t roll off the blades of the plows, but instead stuck to the blades, making plowing roads that much more difficult. Only the city’s front-end loader and blade could get much work done.
“The plow trucks got stuck a lot,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “At some point you wonder if you’re getting anything done or not.”
Two of Morrison’s staff couldn’t get to town to help and a couple of others had to be dug out. Those who did work were released Sunday afternoon.
“There was some stuff we knew we didn’t get done, but we had to send people home. Everyone was exhausted,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “We had to get them some rest.”
By noon Sunday, Morrison said, most of the roads were cleared, although windrows remained in the streets. Those may remain for a while, as equipment repairs are necessary before they can be moved.
“There isn’t really a time table,”âï¿½ï¿½Morrison said. “At least it’s driveable.”
County emergency management director Mike Carter said in the initial stages of the blizzard his office received 100 calls an hour, ranging from people reporting power outages and being out of fuel to worrying about not getting medical prescriptions and oyxgen.
Carter said all medical calls during such a time are responded to, not only by the ambulance service, but also by Custer County Search and Rescue, law enforcement and the Custer Volunteer Fire Department among others, to make sure everyone arrives safely and as quickly as possible. Search and Rescue also made use of a snow cat to assist with transporting medical personnel to and from Custer Regional Hospital, as well as getting to areas other vehicles couldn’t because of drifting. One such place was the Limestone area of the county, where snow drifts as tall as 12 feet in the road hindered around 20 rescue operations.
As the storm gathered strength Friday morning, the Custer County Courthouse closed at 9 a.m., Custer City Hall followed suit a half hour later and Custer Regional Clinic closed at noon and remained closed Saturday, although “essential personnel” remained at the hospital. State offices closed in Custer, Butte, Lawrence, Meade, Pennington and Fall River counties and the county’s 24/7 Program was cancelled Friday.
Many businesses closed early Friday and few bothered to open Saturday. Numerous downed trees hindered snow removal efforts throughout the Hills, with the wet, heavy snow and strong wind combining to knock down trees that fell onto highways and other roads.
Eventually, the entire western third of South Dakota was issued a no-travel advisory and Pennington County issued a travel ban until Sunday morning, Oct. 6. Many Pennington County first responders were taken to work via snowmobile and Rapid City streets resembled a war zone, with abandoned cars strewn throughout the city.
Custer County also forbade travel until Sunday, and the vast majority of highways and roads in western South Dakota were closed, including Interstate 90 from Murdo to the Wyoming state line.
Many towns cancelled school both Friday and Monday, although the Custer School District does not have school on Friday. Classes resumed in the City of Custer Monday morning, while Hermosa resumed classes Tuesday.
The snowstorm led to Custer’s football game against Little Wound scheduled for Oct. 7 to be moved first to Oct. 9 and then to Oct. 10, and also led to the cancellation of the Lakota Nation Invitational volleyball tournament in Rapid City.
Katie Pojorlie, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Rapid City, said the storm was caused by the active weather pattern that lingered from the summer into the fall. Aâï¿½ï¿½strong low pressure system with a great deal of moisture combined with the perfect temperatures and a tight pressure gradient to cause a strong storm with plenty of snow and high winds.
“It’s very unusual,”âï¿½ï¿½she said.âï¿½ï¿½“As far as our records go back, we haven’t had a blizzard or winter storm this strong this early in the season. It’s a record-breaking storm.”
As usual, the Northern Hills got the worst of the storm, with an area two miles southwest of Deadwood receive a whopping 48 inches of snow. Lead reported 43.5 inches of snow, while five miles west of Hermosa had 20 inches, Hayward had 24, Keystone had 20 and Rapid City had 18.5.âï¿½ï¿½Many residents in the Northern Hills and Rapid City were without power for days, while some still were as of press time.
For the most part, the City of Custer escaped prolonged power outages.
Dan Hutt, general manager at Black Hills Electric Cooperative, said the Western Area Power Administration lost transmission feeding its transmission substations in the Rapid City area, leaving about 6,000 members without power all the way down Hwy. 79, including Spring Creek, Hermosa, Fairburn, Rockerville, Johnson Siding and southwest Rapid City. As of Monday, 2,000 were still without power. Hutt said most in Custer County would have their power restored sometime on Oct. 7.
Hutt said crews from across the state came to western South Dakota to lend a hand. He estimated the company lost about 100 poles and had thousands of tree and wire breaks.
Mutch Usera, senior manager of external affairs for Black Hills Power, said around 1,400 Custer residents were without power at some point, but by Monday the vast majority had power restored. The same could be said for most of Fall River County, although Ardmore and Provo may be without power for several days, he said.
“We have several crews hitting it hard,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “We’re fully staffed to hit the ground running really well.”
Usera said the company has 300 workers in the field and crews out of Colorado, Cheyenne, Wyo., Huron and Montana have come to help, and there are 100 workers trimming the downed trees and branches. At the peak of the storm, there were 28,000 Black Hills Power customers without power.
As far as other utilities, Golden West officials reported it did not experience any outages in its services, but did have to make sure power continued to its remote field areas via generators.
In Custer State Park, visitors service coordinator Craig Puglsey said many campers were stuck in the storm, as were volunteer workers. As of Monday, electricity was spotty in the park, but roads were being cleared and things were returning to normal.
“Some sites lost power and we lost a lot of trees,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “Our volunteers were all out of power, but most of them have propane heat so they were able to stay warm. Other than being snowed in, they did pretty well.
“Our maintenance workers worked all weekend and continue to work. We’re waiting for the snow to melt and to get back to business.”
Carter said he expects it will be a week to 10 days before things are back in order in the county, while other far-reaching impacts, such as debris removal and paperwork, could last another six weeks.
Custer County will join forces with the other western South Dakota counties to declare a disaster, seeking monetary help from both the state and federal governments, if available. Carter said the county must now worry about a secondary catastrophe in the form of flooding as all the snow melts.
Carter, like many in the county, are used to the ferocity of such storms in the spring, but were taken back by the carnage and timing of a storm so early in the fall.
“For this to happen in October,” he said, “this is pretty freaky.”
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