Across central South Dakota, as with the whole state, people were getting ready for what could be one of the biggest snowstorms in years.
The National Weather Service was forecasting up to 19 inches of snow could fall from Murdo north-northwest past Pierre and Fort Pierre and on toward Gettysburg starting Wednesday by about noon and continuing until about midnight Thursday.
Freezing rain might fall, too, and likely will, to the east and west of Stanley and Hughes counties, according to the weather service. Winds could howl up to 55 mph or faster. Travel will be dangerous and often impossible, according to the weather service.
It meant ranchers were taking extra care with livestock, snow-moving crews were working hard Tuesday just to make more room for expected snow.
High school sports officials in charge of three state championship basketball tournaments that attract thousands from across the state were cautioning people to get there early and maybe decided to watch at home on TV.
Pierre Mayor Steve Harding said Tuesday evening that the city would be “pre-positioning” equipment across the city to aid in coping with the expected blizzard, including park district and street crews being ready to help clear paths for emergency vehicles, including ambulances and police squads, if necessary.
A snow alert was not issued but Harding said he hoped people would not park on snow routes on Wednesday and Thursday because city crews would be working as much as possible even during the storm to keep streets open.
Meanwhile, city crews will park a front end loader in the downtown fire station so it’s ready to go if trucks needs to roll out into deep snow, Harding said. In the same way, an AMR ambulance will be parked inside the fire station so it, too, can have an escort in case of an emergency, Harding said. Other equipment and snow movers likely will be placed at key sites around the city, he said.
SUB: State officials watching safety of roads, travelers
“Our real key has been the messaging today,” said Tony Mangan, spokesman for state’s Department of Public Safety which includes the Highway Patrol and emergency management. “We are just really encouraging people to get to their destination, especially by Wednesday afternoon. This storm is fast moving, it could be unpredictable.”
“We also encourage people at home to make sure they’ve got needed supplies, medicines, batteries for if the power goes out, candles,” Mangan said. “This is one of those storms, as we look at it now, that will impact people both at home and on the road.”
On Tuesday, state DOT crews were out getting highways ready as much as possible for what might be 19 inches of snow coming.
Kristi Sandal, spokeswoman for the DOT, said maintenance crews have already had a tough winter, working to keep roads “safe and clear.”
“Today, and through the past week, crews have been snowblowing and plowing snow off the shoulders and as far intot he ditch and as far into the medians as they can,” Sandal told the Capital Journal.
“Obviously this much snow now is not ideal, but it’s not unheard of, either,” Sandal said. “So we avhe practices that accomodated the heavy snow and where to put it.”
DOT crews were working on U.S. Highway 14 west of Fort Pierre on Tuesday, as well as up in Corson County near Trail City on the Cheyenne RIver Indian Reservation, about 20 miles southwest of Mobridge, Sandal said.
One tried-and-true technique is using snow to build snow-fences, she said. Graders gouge ridges of snow in the fields adjacent to highways to provide windbreaks that cut some of the drifting of snow over the roadways.
Sandal praised the DOT’s crews for their hard work.
“The safety of the travelling public is our number one priority,” she said.
Travelers should check out the website safetravelusa.com/sd, or call 511 to get the latest road condition information, Sandal said.
Rural Electric Co-ops know poles and lines could go down
The high winds and heavy snow, with possible freezing rain and ice forming mean trees and power lines and power poles will be threatened, weather service and public safety officials said.
So far, rural electric line crews can only wait to see, Ed Anderson, general manager of the South Dakota Rural Electric Association based in Pierre, made up of 31 rural electric cooperatives that provide power to 120,000 farms, homes and businesses across the state.
“We’re participating in daily briefings with the National Weather Service,” he told the Capital Journal.
Despite knowing things could get bad and getting everyone ready to respond, Anderson said it’s largely a waste of resources to try to pre-position line crews because the storm can change its path enough to foil such measures.
“With storms like this, you just wait for the darn thing to hit,” Anderson said.
Freezing rain is the biggest danger to power lines, Anderson said. If the power lines get coated with enough ice, they can begin to “gallop” in high winds, breaking loose from anchors, snapping lines and poles.
Heavy, wet snows can do their own kind of damage, too, but it’s the ice and high winds that are the worst, he said.
Anderson said linemen won’t try to fix lines until the storm is passed or greatly diminished..
“Crew safety is number one,” he said. “We won’t send anyone out into the middle of a blizzard.”
After such damaging storms, co-ops might ask local pilots to search for damage to lines from the air, he said.
Livestock care increases
Fort Pierre Livestock Auction postponed its cattle sales from Friday and Saturday this week until March 22 and 23, meaning a few thousand head, amounting to some millions of dollars, won’t change hands this week in town.
“It’s very rare,” said owner Dennis Hanson. “But if we get the blizzard they say we might, it’s going to be awfully tough to move cattle. Just better for the buyers and sellers. I’d sooner do business on a nice day.”
Willie Cowan, a veteran rancher and cattleman, who buys cattle for the sales barn, was home on his place north of Pierre on Tuesday.
“Everyone I have talked to, they are just trying their best to have everything fed and kind of hope it’s not as bad as they say.”
He remembers some bad years, including 1949 and 1952, when a lot of cattle were lost in winter storms, as well as 1966 when the snow drifts covered farm buildings and it stormed for three days straight..
He sees three big differences now for those who care for livestock on South Dakota’s plains and hills.
“Number one, the modern equipment to feed cattle,” Cowan told the Capital Journal.
The tractors start easily and have warm cabs and the behemoths easily handle deep snow drifts while carrying big round bales of hay.
A second change is trees.
“ Now, there are a lot of places that didn’t use to have all of these shelterbelts that cattle can get behind and the wind can’t get to them. We planted trees every year since we have been here,” he said of his ranch on the Peoria Flats on the east side of Lake Oahe north of Pierre, where he and his wife have been since the early 1960s.
“And now with electricity. Even if it goes off, we don’t like it, but we a have generators. Some can run their whole place off generators.
“ Loretta and I were talking this morning that way back when, if we had a day like today, warm and sunny — it was 45 today — you would let your guard down.”
But the weather service and other weather experts keep everyone pretty well informed about what’s coming and able to use the time to be ready, he said.
“I know my crew -- we have two places, I have sons and grand sons -- they are going to double- feed their cattle. They fed them today and will feed again tonight.”
“Because of this warning, they are going to pay attention to it and they are going to feed and have everything tucked in the very best they can.”
The fact it won’t get below zero this week and his family doesn’t have cows calving, makes for less worry, too, Cowan said.
As a buyer, he travels the region an and sees a lot of cattle.
“They were just laying around enjoying today, storing up some feed. The cattle have got good hair on ‘em. Now, we’re not taking this lightly. I’ve been doing this a lot of years. I have seen storms come up awful fast.”
But with big board windbreaks, tree windbreaks and long, high rows of hay bales stacked, cattle have good shelter, he said.
“They will have something to eat no matter what the weather does. If they got feed and water, they can take a lot.”
State high school tournaments still on in 3 cities
There are 40 teams headed to three state basketball championship tournaments this week, that would draw attendance of about 52,000 people in a nnormal year, said Dan Swartos, executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association.
“We let our teams know yesterday and most have made plans and ar going out tonight,” he told the Capital Journal on Tuesday from his Pierre office. “I’m headed to Sioux Falls tonight.”
The 16-team AA tournament is in Rapid City, the 16-team Class A tournament in Sioux Falls — boys and girls teams at both sites — and the eight-team Class B boys tournament is in Aberdeen.
“We will just play it as it comes,” Swarto said. “Our plans is to hold the contests as scheduled.”
Getting everyone to the sites early will mean an extra day or so of expenses for many, he said.
But if all the teams and officials get to each venue by Tuesday night or early Wednesday, it should work, he said.
Sioux Falls is expected to get as much snow as central and western South Dakota.
Swarto said he was keeping in touch with emergency management officials in each city.
“We might run into some issues in Rapid City and Aberdeen,” he said. “If enough snow falls and can’t get cleared in time, we might have to adjust schedules if the teams can’t get from the motels to the facilities.”
Swartos said he doesn’t know of a state basketball tournament ever being cancelled because of weather. The standing grim joke, of course, is that you can’t have a state basketball tournament in South Dakota without a blizzard, he said.
“We encourage people to use their judgment,” Swartos said. “Watch the weather, in terms of travel. The games are on public TV and the internet. I’m sure the weather will impact our attendance. That’s why we build rainy day funds.”
(Capital Journal reporter David Byrnes contributed to this article.)