Downed trees, blackouts, and four feet of snow – are we prepared for the next blizzard?

Farm Forum

When looking around the Rapid City region today, almost exactly a year removed from the record-setting blizzard of 2013, physical reminders of the storm are hard to find. Trees have been cleared, power lines have been mended, dead cattle have been removed, and disaster recovery funds have been spent to bring life back to normal.

But the memories of the blizzard – which blew in suddenly on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, after a string of 50-degree days – still linger for residents, businesses, ranchers, and government officials.

And so do two questions: What did we learn? And, are we better prepared for the next one?

In trying to answer that, emergency responders and meteorologists caution that last year’s storm system was rare. The 21.5 inches of snow that fell on Rapid City that night was the highest snowfall in a single day since record-keeping began around the 1890s. Any investment in preparedness for another storm, they say, needs to be balanced with the knowledge that such events may occur only once every 100 years (though some argue the blizzard of 1949 was worse).

Still, says Rapid City Fire Chief Mike Maltaverne, the blizzard exposed crucial weaknesses in the ability of South Dakota’s second-largest city to respond to intense snowstorms.

“The big thing was starting late that night, Oct. 4, visibility was reduced and the snow was so deep and heavy that our fire trucks really became immobilized,” he said. “The fire department and the police department literally became paralyzed.”

Some crews, stranded in the snow, were forced to shelter in their ill-equipped vehicles for up to 12 hours.

Meanwhile, as the storm continued to roar, the department was bombarded with hundreds of calls. Many Rapid City motorists were stranded in several feet of snow. Widespread power outages caused havoc for residents with medical conditions who rely on oxygen tubes to breathe.

“There were a lot of 911 calls that literally went unanswered,” Maltaverne said.

The next morning, as a bright, clear day broke out across Rapid City, Maltaverne expected deaths. Miraculously, he said, there wasn’t a death in Rapid City attributed to the blizzard (a Northern Hills man died while clearing a roof, and three people died in a wreck in the Southern Hills).

Being better equipped

In preparation for another blizzard of that magnitude, his department has invested $185,000 in snow tracks for fire department vehicles and for the purchase of a decommissioned Swedish military vehicle, designed to power through as much as 10 feet of snow.

Maltaverne said the vehicle, which cost $95,000 and is also amphibious, would have made a huge difference in rescuing stranded motorists and making oxygen deliveries during the storm.

“That vehicle would have probably run 48 hours straight,” he said. “We had a dozens of missions that vehicle could have served.”

Maltaverne argues that even if the Black Hills doesn’t get hit by another record-breaking blizzard anytime soon, he expected the vehicle to be used one or twice a year, particularly for search and rescue operations.

Beyond new gear, emergency managers across the region have made other changes to ensure they’re prepared for the worst.

Dustin Willett, director of Pennington County’s Emergency Management Department, said his office had problems with staffing during the storm.

During a major disaster, Pennington County sets up an Emergency Operations Center to coordinate a multi-agency response, which, in the case of the blizzard, may include rescuing stranded motorists and plowing streets. Typically the center is led by managers drawn from different agencies, though looking back that may not have been the best strategy, Willett said.

“The reality was that we discovered, especially during the blizzard, those individuals are probably better utilized in their respective departments,” he said.

His department is now training non-response departments to help fill those management roles when the Emergency Operations Center is established. They’re also looking at obtaining more volunteer help, including a new agreement with the Black Hills Amateur Radio Club to aid communications during major events.

“They are regular citizens that have a skill set that you can adapt very easily to work in the EOC,” Willett said.

Improved predictions?

But it isn’t just emergency responders that are better prepared for another big blizzard. The region’s weather forecasters also learned a thing or two.

David Carpenter, meteorologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service office in Rapid City, said that for the most part, his office accurately predicted the timing, duration and wind speed of the storm.

What the service underestimated was how much snow would fall. Part of the reason his office didn’t predict more snow is because it was so unusual for that time of year, the first week of October.

“Obviously any storm that sets new records for snowfall so early in the season and the magnitude of the storm, it always expands our understanding of what’s possible,” he said.

Susan Sanders, also a meteorologist, said that the storm also gave the department guidance on how to better tailor public warnings in the future.

Because so many of the trees around the Black Hills still hadn’t lost their leaves, and because the snow fell so heavily, trees across the region were weighed down and toppled by the storm’s 60 mph winds. Many of those trees fell onto power lines, which were then severed and eliminated electric service to thousands of homes.

“We didn’t understand those impacts,” Sanders said. “Where so many trees would fall down and cause so many power outages.”

Impact on industry

Business owners across the region also learned some lessons, many the hard way.

Knecht Home Center, a huge hardware store in downtown Rapid City, took one of the biggest blows during the storm. Part of the store’s roof collapsed under the weight of snow. Subsequent damage to a sprinkler deluged the store with 500,000 gallons of water.

Bryan Rice, the store’s general manager, said while it’s not entirely clear what caused the collapse – whether the roof was too weak or whether it wasn’t draining properly – pushed Knecht’s to make a significant investment in roof upgrades. “We actually kind of went overboard to make sure this thing never happens again,” he said.

But some groups are less optimistic that they could have done anything to avoid the brunt of the storm.

One of the most devastating economic impacts to Western South Dakota was the death of livestock. While the exact number of deaths is unknown, agricultural groups have been able to confirm that at least 43,000 cattle, sheep and horses were killed.

Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said that the high death toll was the result of a handful of factors. Because the storm hit so early in the season, she said, most cattle hadn’t developed their winter layer of fat. Because it rained before it snowed, most cattle were chilled and sapped of energy before the worst hit.

“To be completely honest I don’t know if there was a whole lot we could do to prepare better for it,” she said. “It was such an untimely, freak storm.”

However, she said, the storm was a reminder to ranchers to keep the records of their cattle in good order. In the blizzard’s aftermath, as ranchers scrambled to file claims for government assistance for their losses, some discovered that their file-keeping systems didn’t meet the standards of the federal government.

Another lesson learned, she said, is that the agriculture community can’t always rely on the government for help. Congress’s failure at the time to pass a farm bill, a massive piece of agriculture legislation that is renewed every few years, meant that most ranchers couldn’t immediately file claims and it wasn’t clear whether they would be covered at all.

“We need to make sure our producers are better protected if we are faced with a situation like this again,” Christen said.

Ultimately, officials say, for all they can do to respond to a major disaster, the biggest lesson to learn from last year’s blizzard still lies with residents in the Black Hills.

Maltaverne said he hopes more residents store up enough food, water, and heating and cooking supplies to survive up to 72 hours without electricity.

“Maybe they think a little bit now and say ‘I need to prepare my home, I need to prepare my family and get my house in order,’” he said. ‘So that if another event like this happen, their household is prepared.”