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Despite cold blast, weather in Black Hills unusually mild in 2017

Rapid City is ending the year with severely cold temperatures, but records show that local severe weather was notably infrequent during 2017.

The Rapid City office of the National Weather Service issued only 183 severe thunderstorm warnings this year, which was the fewest issued by the office since 1996.

“One of the things you really need for thunderstorms is moisture,” said Shane Eagan, a meteorologist in the office. “Not necessarily rain, but moisture in the atmosphere. Since we were so dry this year, we kind of lacked a critical ingredient for that.”

In typical years, the office issues 200 to 300 severe thunderstorm warnings, Eagan said. In the most active years, the office has issued more than 400.

According to a 2017 weather summary published recently by the office, the dry conditions began in May, which is typically the region’s wettest month. This year, May precipitation in parts of the region was barely more than 50 percent of the historical average.

Rainfall continued to linger below normal levels through the summer. By early July, the entire area was abnormally dry while northwestern South Dakota was suffering from a drought rated as severe, and areas east of the Black Hills were in a drought rated as extreme (drought classifications range in severity from moderate to severe, extreme and exceptional).

As of Tuesday morning, Rapid City was still almost 7 inches below normal annual precipitation, with just 12.76 inches recorded by the National Weather Service at its downtown office, compared with the normal value of 19.72 inches.

The possibility of light snowfall is in the forecast Thursday through Saturday this week, along with continued cold temperatures after some bitterly cold wind chills overnight on Christmas Day through Tuesday morning.

The coldest spot in western South Dakota early Tuesday morning was the Lemmon area, which experienced a wind chill factor of 36 below zero. Rapid City was among the comparatively warmer-feeling places in the region, with a wind chill of minus 12.

Those extremely cold conditions come near the end of a year in local and regional weather that was highlighted by these events, as summarized by the National Weather Service:

• Jan. 24-25: 8 to 15 inches of snow fell on Oglala Lakota County, while 3 to 8 fell on the Black Hills. 

• Feb. 23-24: 4 to 8 inches of snow, with localized amounts over 12 inches, fell on parts of northeastern Wyoming, the eastern slopes of the Black Hills and far southern South Dakota. 

• April 9-10: The year's final winter storm dumped 4 to 8 inches of snow on the Black Hills.

• June 12: Quarter-sized hail and 70 mph wind gusts were reported in southwestern South Dakota, and a small tornado that caused no damage was spotted southwest of Allen. Straight-line winds blew over a semitrailer on Interstate 90 near Kadoka.

• June 27: The Custer County Airport weather station recorded a peak wind gust of 69 mph, its highest ever. The Custer YMCA building lost a section of its roof, several signs were blown over and broken, and numerous trees were blown down.

• July 18: A hailstorm pounded the Newell area with baseball-sized stones and wind gusts over 90 mph. Several sheds and numerous trees were toppled, building and car windows were broken, and crops were destroyed.

• Aug. 14: Large hail damaged roofs and heavy rain caused localized street flooding on the north side of Rapid City. Thunderstorms dropped baseball-sized hail and 2 to 4 inches of rain over northern Oglala Lakota County, causing flash flooding along Porcupine Creek from Rockyford to Porcupine. A family took shelter in a church and was stranded overnight before being rescued.

• Aug. 25: 3 to 5 inches of rain fell across southern Ziebach County. Runoff caused flash flooding along Ash and Rattlesnake creeks and water ran over several county and BIA roads.

• Aug. 26: The second of the region’s two 2017 tornadoes touched down and damaged some trees south of Oelrichs.

• Dec. 4-14: Rapid City Regional Airport and the downtown National Weather Service office recorded 50 mph wind gusts on eight days between Dec. 4 and 14. The winds fanned the flames of the Legion Lake Fire that began Dec. 11 in Custer State Park and grew to the third-largest wildfire in the recorded history of the Black Hills region.

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Man to plead guilty a second time in Bluebird murder

A man has signed a new plea deal indicating he would admit having taken part in the killing of a Pine Ridge woman last year. His initial guilty plea had been invalidated by the court after prosecutors affirmed conflicting statements regarding who strangled the victim.

Fred Quiver, 31, is set to plead guilty Jan. 10 to accessory to second-degree murder in the killing of Emily Bluebird, according to federal court records. The crime is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Quiver, of Pine Ridge, would plead to the same offense he pleaded guilty to in March. But his new statement of facts on the murder doesn’t say who killed 24-year-old Bluebird, only that it happened at Quiver’s home while she was drinking with him and his live-in girlfriend, Elizabeth LeBeau, Jan. 2 last year.

“At some point that evening or early the next morning, while only the three were present, Emily was unlawfully murdered primarily by strangulation,” according to a two-page statement signed last week by Quiver, his lawyer and the U.S. Attorney's Office. In his previous statement, also affirmed by federal prosecutors, Quiver said LeBeau strangled Bluebird with a cord after the women got into an argument.

On both documents, Quiver admitted destroying evidence to prevent LeBeau from getting caught. This included pouring bleach over Bluebird’s body to destroy DNA evidence, hiding the body underneath his home, as well as burning shoes and clothes that belonged to the three of them. 

Bluebird’s body was found Jan. 21, 2016, near a creek on the reservation. A week later, the couple was charged: LeBeau with first-degree murder and Quiver with accessory to first-degree murder.

The victim's family said Bluebird and Quiver had been neighbors and grew up together.

In November, LeBeau pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and accessory to second-degree murder in accordance with a new plea deal with federal prosecutors. Her accompanying written statement also didn’t go into much detail — unlike her previous one — merely saying she and Quiver strangled Bluebird together. She originally said Quiver strangled Bluebird with an electronics cord following an argument.

LeBeau, 25, is scheduled for sentencing March 21 at the federal courthouse in Rapid City, where she faces up to life for murder and up to 15 years for being an accessory. Prosecutors said they would recommend that LeaBeau serve her two sentences at the same time.

She and Quiver are both detained at the Pennington County Jail.

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DOT says more roundabouts coming in 2018 to improve highway safety

PIERRE | Three years ago, the South Dakota Transportation Commission decided against using roundabouts at the Brookings interchanges between the business route of U.S. Highway 14 and Interstate 29.

Among the reasons were complaints that long semitrailers and large farm equipment might have trouble getting around the no-stop circles. Even so, state Department of Transportation officials kept on planning roundabouts at other spots. Now they plan to construct several roundabouts in 2018.

Last week, commissioners approved bids for a roundabout at Watertown in Codington County. It would be at the South Connector intersection of U.S. Highway 81 and 20th Avenue Southeast.

The commission’s surface transportation improvement plan also calls for a roundabout in Minnehaha County at the intersection of S.D. highways 42 and 17 at Wall Lake. And DOT officials plan two roundabouts at Sisseton in Roberts County along S.D. Highway 10.

Mike Behm, DOT director of planning and engineering, said roundabouts are statistically safer than traditional three- and four-way intersections. Nationally, they reduce fatalities 90 percent and reduce injuries 75 percent, according to Behm. 

Public opinion about roundabouts before construction runs favorable in the 30 to 40 percent range, Behm said, but after they’re built, support rises to more than 60 percent. “We hope to see some good numbers on our roundabouts,” he said.

Behm’s information was part of an overall presentation on steps the department has taken in recent years to reduce frequency of traffic crashes by improving the safety of highways in South Dakota.

Installation of shoulder rumble strips began in 2010. So far there have been 21 percent fewer roadway-departure crashes, 24 percent fewer fatal crashes and 20 percent fewer injury crashes.

The department put center line rumble strips on U.S. Highway 12 between Aberdeen and Ipswich in 2016.

During the five previous years, six head-on crashes and one opposite-direction sideswipe occurred on that stretch of Highway 12. There have been zero crashes of those types in the year since the strips went in.

Shoulder widening on S.D. Highway 73 and S.D. Highway 20 north of Faith produced an 80 percent reduction in roadway-departure crashes. Ten similar projects have been recently completed or are underway, and 25 more are planned in the next eight years.

Four curved sections of highways received high-friction surface treatment in 2014. They’ve seen an 80 percent reduction in winter crashes. Eighteen more locations received it this year.

“This is an area where the state of South Dakota is leading,” Behm said.

Milbank’s four lanes of U.S. Highway 12 were condensed to three lanes in 2013. Since then the crashes came down 63 percent and injury crashes fell 48 percent. Somewhat similar changes now are planned for state highways in Tyndall and Tabor.

Diverging-diamond interchanges force vehicles from opposite directions to simultaneously turn left by routing them to the left sides rather than the traditional right. They produced solid results in spots such as from I-90 in Rapid City. Injury crashes dropped 41 percent.

Now diverging-diamonds are planned for I-90 exit 59 at Lacrosse Street in Rapid City for 2020 and for I-29 exit 71 at 41st Street in Sioux Falls for 2023.

Ten-foot shoulders depend on availability of revenues, so the department focuses on where the greatest effect can be accomplished, Behm said. Rumble strips won’t be installed in urban or suburban areas but will be placed in those rural areas where they can be fit, he said.

Center line rumble strips won’t be used everywhere but are considered for higher-traveled roads, with 2,500 vehicles per day as the threshold, according to Behm.