With the northern Panhandle still reeling from the effects of Winter Storm Ulmer, news that Winter Storm Wesley was headed for the region last week was unwelcome.
Wesley, like Ulmer, struck in the middle of the week, prompting school and business closures and the cancellation of several events, including Chadron State College's annual Scholastic Day and the ribbon cutting for CSC's new track and field facility. And while travel was not advised across the region, most of the state's highway system remained open in the northern Panhandle during the storm, a stark contrast to Ulmer.
Dawes County still has 34 local roads closed from damage sustained during Winter Storm Ulmer and flooding associated with the storm. Dawes County Interim Road Superintendent Larry Hankin said crews are working on repairing roads, but it will not be a quick process. Fortunately, Winter Storm Wesley appears to have had minimal impact and has not caused further complications, said Hankin Monday. The county has not seen the significant run-off after last week’s storm because the ground has thawed, he said.
Members of the public expressed concerns about having roads closed during the spring turkey hunting season at last week’s meeting of the Dawes County Commissioners, with one suggesting the county look at establishing weight limits on damaged roads rather than keeping them closed. Logistically and legally that proposal met with concerns.
“Safety has to be paramount,” said Deputy County Attorney Adam Edmund.
“We’re here for the local traffic so we can get our own people out,” said Commissioner Jake Stewart, noting that repairing roads for local traffic is a higher priority than taking care of hunters. “They will have to change their plans,” he said, adding that the county has plenty of public lands available for hunting accessible from highways.
In Sheridan County, Highway Superintendent Tom Kuester said Winter Storm Wesley delayed road repairs taking place in the aftermath of Ulmer.
"We were making progress, and now we're starting over again," he said Monday. Sheridan County still had four or five roads closed earlier this week, but Kuester hopes to end the week with only two or three closed.
It's a similar story in Sioux County, said Gordon Mathis of that county's road department.
"We were making a little bit of headway before this last snowstorm," he said. Prior to Winter Storm Wesley, his crews attempted to make the county's roads "passable."
"It does not mean their fixed," he stressed. "The public needs to be careful where they drive."
Even with patchwork done in spots, the roads were still soft in places, and last week's moisture created additional challenges. While there was no new flooding, everything turned to mud.
"It's a just a mess out there," Mathis said, noting that one of the county's blades became buried in the mud on Trail Road, which has now been closed until conditions improve. He once again urged patience from the public, remarking that his crew is limited in personnel and that it will take time before the roads can be repaired properly.
Region 23 Emergency Management has turned in damage reports establishing that the northern Panhandle counties have met their threshold levels to qualify for federal emergency assistance. Region 23 Director Nan Gould said FEMA’s verification of those damage reports was still pending as of Monday.
In other business last week, the Dawes County Commissioners also signed the contracts for the repairs to Dunlap Road, with construction planned for August, and established weight limits on Toadstool Road, limiting the road to traffic weighing no more than seven tons per axle. The limitation will be in force for 180 days.
The commissioners also briefly considered a proposal on its next road superintendent after learning that the county can hire a consulting or engineering firm to serve in that capacity. Tony Armer of Mainelle Wagner and Associates said the county can tailor such an arrangement to its specifications and the engineer or consultant can be as hands-on or hands-off as the county wishes. The commissioners will continue discussions on hiring an in-house road superintendent or contracting the service out in the future.