Winter Storm Ulmer roared across the Great Plains leaving a path of devastation across Nebraska as it dumped up to 18 inches of snow in areas of the Panhandle and caused historic flooding in the central and eastern part of the state.
With highs in the 50s across the northern Panhandle Tuesday, snow still on the ground began to melt, prompting water in the region’s creeks and rivers to rise and flood in several places. Farmers and ranchers preparing for the blizzard predicted to hit overnight had to deal with swollen streams and rivers as they situated their herds in areas that would provide the best shelter from blowing snow during the heart of the blizzard.
Gasseling Cattle Company in southern Dawes County trailed cattle through fetlock-deep water before the severe weather hit. Dead Horse Creek rose high enough that it trapped about 60 cow-calf pairs owned by Ron and Cody Scherbarth, according to Cody’s girlfriend Robin Ferguson in an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star. Normally just a few feet across and a foot deep, the creek was running too full and fast Tuesday for the ranchers to cross in their tractor. The trio planned to spend most of Wednesday trailing the cattle a mile and a half in whiteout blizzard conditions to get the cattle to safety with enough hay for food and bedding, Ferguson said.
Schools and businesses across the northern Panhandle shut down for some or all of the final three days of last week, believing it was safer for students and employees to remain at home. But ranchers, many in the middle of calving season, had no choice but to cut through drifts to provide hay and haul newborn calves to the barn. Jaymee Young, who lives south of Hay Springs, reported that her husband and his brother used tractors to dig a path to the cattle to feed and in search of missing babies. The ranch was without power for 22 hours, though generators provided heat for their home. The drifts were as tall as the Youngs’ hay stacks, and until snowplows arrived the only access to their home was by snowmobile.
The Youngs were one of 290 Northwest Rural Public Power District customers who experienced outages during the storm. NRPPD General Manager Chance Briscoe said most outages began Wednesday night and continued into Thursday. By the end of the day Thursday only about 60 customers remained out of power, and everyone had power restored by the end of the day Friday, he said.
On Three Mile Creek southwest of Kyle, S.D., Dale Vocu spent hours after the storm passed rescuing cattle from the drifts. Knowing the storm was going to hit the area particularly hard, he fed his cattle along a draw, hoping they would remain in the sheltered area since his ranch doesn’t have much else for windbreaks.
“The wind pushed them out I guess,” he said.
After Winter Storm Ulmer moved out of the area, he discovered cattle buried in the snow drifts as he drove across a prairie dog town nearly devoid of snow due to the high winds.
“When I first saw the bull, just his head was sticking out of the snow,” Vocu said. As they began working to free the bull, they discovered five yearlings nearby; they were able to free all of them.
“We probably dug down eight feet to get (the bull) out of there,” said Vocu, noting they dug a trail that allowed the animal to eventually walk out of the drift.
Still, he suffered losses as well, mostly to his Longhorn and Brahma cattle. He didn’t know Friday what his total death loss would be, given the concern that more of his cattle were trapped under drifts he couldn’t make it to.
“We won’t know until the snow melts what’s under there,” he said.
Early reports of cattle losses were only in the single digits, said Dawes County Extension Educator Jack Arterburn, but as Monday progressed, more cattle losses were being reported.
“A lot of reports have come in today,” he said Monday afternoon. “(There are) no concrete numbers but it sounds like some (ranchers) took it pretty bad.”
Ranchers who suffered losses from flooding and blizzard impacts can access Farm Service Agency programs like the Livestock Indemnity Program, Emergency Conservation Program, Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program, Disaster Set-Aside Program and the Emergency Loan Program.
“As producers continue to address their individual circumstances, we want them to be aware of these programs and information we may need to deliver assistance to them,” FSA State Executive Director Nancy Johner said in a press release.
Each program offers different types of assistance and have different qualification requirements, but documentation is critical so ranchers are urged to keep veterinarian or other third-party certifications, rendering receipts, dated photos and videos. Producers can contact their local FSA offices for more information.
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Winter Storm Ulmer was dubbed a “bomb cyclone,” a term used to refer to a certain set of conditions, said National Weather Service meteorologist Crystal Worley, based in Cheyenne. The term is used when a weather system loses one millibar of pressure per hour for 24 hours.
“It indicates that it’s rapidly intensifying,” she said. The storm dropped upwards of 18 inches across much of the northern Panhandle region with wind gusts over 40 mph.
The City of Chadron made the call Tuesday ahead of the storm to keep its street crews operating through the blizzard, primarily to provide access for emergency vehicles, said City Manager Greg Yanker. Doing so allowed easier and faster clean-up in the aftermath of the storm as well.
“I think it was the right call,” Yanker said.
City crews, in two shifts, worked non-stop from Wednesday at 4 a.m. to Thursday at 6 p.m. keeping emergency routes open, said Public Works Director Milo Rust. For Winter Storm Ulmer, 10th Street, Ridgeview, Maple Street and North Main Street and up to Crest View were all added to the normal emergency route list. The crews, augmented with extra staffing by Police Chief Tim Lordino and Lt. Rick Hickstein in plow trucks, worked the routes consistently, with one spot near the hospital requiring attention nearly every hour, Rust said.
The round-the-clock operation, in addition to assistance from other agencies and businesses with heavy equipment, allowed the city to also keep one lane of traffic open on most of the city’s streets. But Rust said it’s important that the public remember in circumstances like those seen last week, they still need to stay home.
“We’re not plowing the streets so everyone can get everywhere. We’re plowing streets for life safety,” he said. “We had people trying to go through seven-foot snow drifts. It should be an emergency to go out in that stuff. I had people wanting to get dog food or find a burger when all of the places were closed. It’s not worth the risk.”
Even with the pre-planning and constant effort to clear snow, it was still difficult for the crews to keep up, said Fire Chief Jack Rhembrandt. Fearing that first responders wouldn’t be able to make it to the fire hall, he staffed four people at the station from 10:30 p.m. Wednesday until 6 a.m. Thursday so an initial response to an emergency would not be delayed.
Two rescue calls came in during the course of the blizzard, one during the day and one in the overnight hours. Police Chief Tim Lordino said a 911 call for a 1-year-old baby certainly would have been delayed had the city crews not already been working on the streets. He reinforced Rust’s recommendation that citizens prepare ahead of time for storms like Ulmer and only venture out in an actual emergency, noting that the CPD issued one citation for negligent driving and disorderly conduct in connection with an incident between a driver and the snowplow Lordino was operating.
Every major highway was closed in the Panhandle Wednesday and Thursday, according to the Nebraska Department of Transportation's 511 Traveler Information website. While most re-opened early Friday morning, a few trouble spots, including Highway 20 from Wyoming to Crawford, remained closed until roughly mid-day Friday.
The warm weather ahead of Ulmer, and a half-inch of rain in places Tuesday night prompted the NWS to issue a flood advisory for northwest Dawes County last week; after the storm passed, that flood warning was extended through part of the weekend. New flood advisories were issued Monday for part of Box Butte County and all of Dawes and Sioux counties as snow from Ulmer began to melt.
“It’s something we’re continuing to watch,” Worley said Friday of the flooding risks.
In Sheridan County Monday, every road was passable for one vehicle, according to Road Superintendent Tom Kuester, though he still recommended four-wheel drive only. Water going over the roads had already caused some washouts ahead of Ulmer, including one that damaged a snowplow after the machine’s operator drove into it unaware of its existence. The conditions of roads will worsen in the coming days and weeks, he said.
In Sioux County, several sections of road remained closed Monday, though every home was accessible, even if was by a longer route than normal, said Gordon Mathis of the Sioux County Road Department. He urged residents to stay off the roads if possible and asked that no one drive around just to look at road conditions.
“The road conditions are changing every day,” he said, noting that more washouts are developing daily and driver’s need to pay attention.
“We’re going to have extreme washouts and road damage. The worst is yet to come,” Mathis said.
Dawes County Interim Road Superintendent Larry Hankin could not be reached for comment before press time.