We all were warned, and yet it was still shocking on Friday to see the horizontal snowflakes, downed trees, powerless homes, wrecked cars and an entire region nearly brought to a standstill by a raging blizzard that hit Western South Dakota just four days into October.
Black Hills residents who went to sleep to the sound of thunder and the blaze of lightning bolts on Thursday night awoke Friday morning to more than a foot of snow in some places and wind gusts up to 70 mph across the region. The storm made travel a challenge, daily duties a chore, and commerce impossible.
The snowfall was expected to intensify and temperatures were likely fall further through the night Friday and into this morning, but then quickly subside and give way to a massive melting by the end of the weekend.
The storm system that raged in from the west dumped wet, heavy snow that downed trees and closed roads across the area but particularly in the Northern Hills. Schools and government offices were closed in several West River counties and travel was treacherous.
According to police scanner traffic, numerous accidents kept emergency crews busy throughout the day Friday as wet slush built up on highways and sometimes froze. Travel was particularly treacherous on U.S. Highway 16 south and west of Rapid City, and the stretch of Interstate 90 from Sturgis west to the Wyoming line was closed Friday morning.
Winter storm warnings extended from Ziebach County in the north to Bennett County in the south due to a storm that was the earliest accumulation of snow in Rapid City history and by the end of the day could be the single worst snowstorm in October in more than a century.
The dense snow, combined with the wind, battered power lines, plunging scores of homes and businesses into the dark across the region. Nearly 9,000 calls reporting power outages were received by Black Hills Power from late Thursday night to early Friday morning, according to company officials.
With almost 24 inches of snow on the ground, the cities of Lead and Deadwood were virtually shut down. Authorities in Butte and Meade counties warned drivers they could be ticketed if they ventured out unless in an emergency situation.
A weather spotter at Deerfield Lake reported 12 inches of snow by 9 a.m. Friday and at least 8 inches were on the ground in Hill City by 7 a.m. A 59-mph wind gust was reported near Wind Cave National Park on Friday morning.
Unusual storm system
The storm took an intriguing path to becoming a blizzard — starting as sprinkles of rain Thursday afternoon, then progressing into a thunderstorm, and finally a snowstorm by early morning.
Rapid City measured a record daily rainfall of .96 inches on Thursday, outpacing the 1930 record of .76 inches. At Rapid City Regional Airport, a new Oct. 3 record of .92 inches was set. The previous record was .66 in set in 1983.
Don Drumbaugh, streets superintendent with the city of Rapid City, said plows were running on many major streets Friday morning. Plows will continue to maintain the streets that need it the most, he said.
Neighborhoods getting most snow removal attention on Friday were in north Rapid City along Maple Avenue and Anamosa Street and in open areas, particularly Country Road where drifts typically form. Because the snow is so wet underneath, ice was not a major problem initially on Friday.
“Our main lines are all pretty good in town, if people just take it easy," Drumbaugh said. "It’s wet underneath so people need to just adjust their driving accordingly.”
Drumbaugh said that the forecast looks good for the streets starting today when the weather forecast calls for temperatures of near 40 today and near 50 on Sunday.
“The forecast looks good for us as far as snow removal,” Drumbaugh said. “Ground temperatures are still warm and the air temperatures should stay in low to mid-30s, so we should be in good shape.”
Despite the closure of most city offices, as well as schools and other government offices, Drumbaugh and his team will continue to monitor the weather and street conditions.
Drumbaugh could not say how many plows were out working Friday, but the city has 30 or 40 pieces of equipment available if needed, he said.
Rapid City road crews were busy Thursday night installing traffic-detour signs and barricades along Sheridan Lake Road near the intersection of Jackson Boulevard for a construction project.
Early Friday as the winter storm intensified, the morning commute went relatively smoothly from Sheridan Lake to West Flormann Street to Mountain View Road and on to the newly installed temporary traffic signal at Jackson at Mountain View.
Power lines a problem
Trees were down and power was out across the Northern Hills most of Friday morning, with Lead-Deadwood getting the most snow but Spearfish and Belle Fourche losing the most trees. Snow was falling at a rate of a half-inch to an inch per hour in the Nisland area Friday morning, according to a National Weather Service spotter.
At least 22 inches of snow was on the ground in Lead as the storm whipped the Northern Hills, the Weather Service said.
The mix of rain, snow and eventual freezing temperatures challenged power companies as snow and ice piled on trees and power lines, knocking out power across the area. Traffic lights in various areas of Rapid City worked intermittently as the power blinked off and on.
The Rapid City Fire Department issued a reminder that overburdened trees can create dangerous situations. They urged the following precautions: do not try to remove tree branches from power lines; watch for overhead hazards, such as trees and tree branches over homes and structures; be cautious about parking under trees; and report downed trees immediately.
If a power line falls, officials said residents should stay clear of the line, and call 911 to report it.
Over 5,000 customers were still without power Friday morning, according to the Black Hills Power website.
Nearly 700 customers in Custer were without power from midnight through Friday morning. And over 1,500 were without power in Belle Fourche.
Spearfish residents were being hit the hardest, a total of 1,757 were without power early Friday. Most of those were reported around 9 a.m., but 455 customers have been without power since 4:30 a.m.
Deadwood was experiencing a lot of power outages as well. A total of 1,093 customers are without power, and about half of those were reported just before 1:30 a.m. Friday.
Fewer outages were reported in northwest Rapid City early Friday. About 100 customers in that area were without power.
"It’s been a challenge," Mutch Usera, senior manager of external affairs for Black Hills Power, said Friday. "The stress from the snow is causing extreme weight and the lines can snap."
He said there are three key challenges with this storm: The leaves on trees and dead pine beetle trees, the heavy snow and wind conditions.
Usera said the crews work to fix the issues that are the easiest and quickest to fix, and work there way to the hardest.
"We have snowcats and ATVs that can get us in to some of those areas, but sometimes we have to wait until snow lightens so we can get in there and assess the damage in specific areas. That’s why it's really hard to tell customers when restorations will take place," Usera said.
Another storm on horizon?
While the storm marched across western South Dakota, National Weather Service forecasters predicted that remnants of the storm could linger in areas east of Rapid City into this afternoon.
Moderating temperatures will accompany the sunshine on Sunday. Temperatures should be back into the 60s in Rapid City by Monday.
But forecasters warned residents not to get too comfortable, however, because long-range predictions hint that another blast of cold could slide into the area next weekend.
At least for some residents, the blizzard wasn't a big deal, and more snow on the horizon is no cause for concern.
Dustin Dunn and Matthew Wenzel, both students at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, were out walking along Canyon Lake Drive Friday morning without coats and wearing only sneakers.
"We're actually pretty warm if we stay moving," Dunn said with a grin.