1996-1997: A winter for the record books

Farm Forum

By Kelda J.L. Pharris


Top 5 snowiest South Dakota winters

1. 1936-37: 109.8 inches

2. 1896-97: 94.6 inches

3. 2010-11: 79.3 inches

4. 1993-94: 76.8 inches

5. 1996-97: 75.9

Snowfalls by month, 1996-97


• Nov. 15-17: 7 inches

• Nov. 19-20: 6.1 inches

• Nov. 22-24: 6 inches

• Significant event total for the month: 19.1 inches

• Overall total for the month: 20.3 inches


• Dec. 14: 5.5 inches

• Dec. 22-23: 4.4 inches

• Significant event total for the month: 9.9 inches

• Overall total for the month: 13.9 inches


• Jan. 3-4 1997: 12.8 inches

• Jan. 9, 1997: 3.8 inches

• Significant event total for the month: 16.6 inches

• Overall total for the month: 19.3 inches


• Feb. 3-4 1997: 6.7 inches

• Significant event total for the month: 6.7

• Overall total for the month: 9.3

MARCH 1997

• March 13 1997: 3 inches

• March 17-18 1997: 3.7 inches

• Significant event total for the month: 6.7 inches

• Overall total for the month: 8.5 inches

APRIL 1997

• April 5-6, 1997: 4.2 inches

• Significant event total for the month: 4.2 inches

• Overall total for the month: 4.6 inches

1996-97 totals

• Snow total from all significant events: 63.5 inches

• Snow total November 1996 through April 1997: 75.9 inches

It was a winter for the record books.

Snow accumulations of 70 to more than 100 inches — double the area average — stretched over a three-season long onslaught of blizzard conditions that began in the fall of 1996 and ended well into the spring 1997.

The storm indirectly claimed at least one life when a Wakpala woman was stranded in her vehicle and succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Another man was severely injured trying to clear snow from his barn roof and it collapsed under the weight.

A portion of roof on the Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center — then the Monroe School building attached to the Washington Street Gym location — collapsed.

Fifty thousand head of cattle died in North and South Dakota by January. Deer were destroying private food stocks in their own search for sustenance, so private kills and depredation hunts were organized.

Even as memories of those events have faded, a queasy feeling still stirs in folks who experienced it. Those who lived in rural communities at that time were dealt the biggest blow and still get anxious when flakes fall and winds pick up.

“I get really nervous and scared when it snows — I made sure I stayed home (during this Christmas storm),” Karen Nelson said.

Twenty years ago, Nelson ended up stranded in a slough off of Day County Highway 19 for 40 hours beginning Jan. 9, 1997, trying to get to her rural Webster home from her job in Roslyn. With the gravel roads under a blanket of ice and snow, Nelson missed her turn, continuing straight, realized her mistake, tried to get back on the right path but ended up lost in the blizzard conditions.

Luckily, not long before that, a Webster gas station was giving away bagphones with the purchase of $100 in gas, Nelson said. That phone ended up being her lifeline as public servants, good samaritans and snowmobilers searched for her.

Then-Gov. Bill Janklow sent in a private plane to help assist ground crews, according to American News archives. The plane had technology that could zero in on the frequency of the phone Nelson had with her.

The windchill was 80 below when they found her Jan. 11, 1997.

“I appreciate all those people saving me, spending time looking for me,” Nelson said by phone from her Watertown home on Dec. 28.

The rescue effort was picked up by national media. After the ordeal she had letters, notes and phone calls from people all over the world sending their congratulations, well wishes and telling her how they prayed for her safe return.

“God couldn’t let all these people down, so he kept me alive,” Nelson said.

This region’s latest storm over the Christmas holiday triggered some of those memories for her. Her family had planned to get together at her daughter’s home, but when it started looking rough outside and the forecast was more than ominous, she didn’t think twice about staying at her own home.

“My daughter called on Saturday. She texted, ‘Do you think you and Dad and Tyler could come down tonight?’”

Nelson had a quick reply: “And then what? Get killed or see on the national news: ‘Karen Nelson didn’t learn her lesson 20 years ago’?” she replied. “There’s no way I’m doing that.”

Britton received 104 inches, Mellette 106.5 inches and the Aberdeen area 75.9 inches of snow during that 1996-97 winter season. An average winter snow accumulation is 38 inches for Aberdeen according to Travis Tarver with the National Weather Service in Aberdeen.

“In an average year we would budget for five official snow removals in a year,” Robin Bobzien, director of Public Works in Aberdeen, said at his office in December. “That particular year, ‘96-’97, I’ll bet we did 10-12 official snow removals. I know we were well over double the budget.”

Bobzien estimates each removal at that time cost the city $8,000 to $10,000.

The winter of 1996 to ‘97, is actually only the fifth snowiest in weather service records. Accumulation amounts weren’t exactly what put a chokehold on the region those six long months. The snow just never really melted away in between storms, piling up in every available space plows could put it and creating corridors out of roads, sidewalks and medians. As cold temperatures maintained the snow, brutal winds would create blizzard conditions even on days little more fell from the sky.

“The wind never stopped so all the snow we had on the ground was blowing and drifting every day,” Tarver said.

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The road sign marking Brown County 14 E southeast of Aberdeen is nearly buried under snow from the road being plowed. High winds created blowing snow that was starting to drift the road shut again Friday afternoon. photo by john davis taken 1/24/97.