Spring storm wreaks havoc in Custer County

By Jason Ferguson

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Closed and flooded roads, downed trees, cars in ditches, closed schools, power loss and a general overall mess were the result of a May 20-21 snowstorm that dropped anywhere from 12 to 20 inches of wet, heavy snow throughout Custer County and made life miserable for most of those who felt its impact.

Mike Chase, manager of marketing and member services at Black Hills Electric Cooperative (BHEC), said BHEC started to get power outages around 11 a.m. May 21, of which some lasted until the morning of May 24. Exhaustive efforts by BHEC crews and other contractors (eight linemen from West River Electric and nine from Kainz Contractors) helped restore power despite the fact that BHEC lost 12 poles. Chase said most of the power loss was due to trees collapsing under the weight of the snow and falling on lines.

“Thanks to the work we’ve done over the years of being able to switch between substations and feeds, most customers weren’t out very long,” he said.

Chase said some areas had four to five inches of snow on the lines, which can add up to 8,000 pounds of weight between poles. There were a few minutes on Wednesday when 5,400 of BHEC’s 8,000 customers were without power.

At the height of the storm, 2,200 customers were without power. The storm took out BHEC’s Dry Creek substation south of Rapid City, which in turn took out four others.

“The big issue we had was power outages,” said Custer County emergency management director Mike Carter in assessing the storm. “We lost a tremendous amount of small diameter trees.”

Carter closed the Custer County Courthouse the morning of May 22, as power outages and travel made opening the courthouse precarious. Carter said the state’s wildland fire department dispatched a crew to the Hills to help trim trees off the roadways. Iron Mountain Road, Lower French Creek Road and over the top of Mount Coolidge had significant tree-fall covering roadways.

City of Custer public works director Bob Morrison said the city didn’t see a lot of damage other than some downed tree limbs, but lamented that the constant snow and rain prevents the city crew from doing tasks it normally does this time of year.

“In a lot of respects, we got lucky in comparison to what it could have been,” he said. “But it’s getting really frustrating.”

Morrison and Carter both worry about flooding as the snow melts and the forecast continues to predict rain.

“The snow is still sitting here and if it rains on top of it, that’s double the moisture,” he said. “We’re watching it. There isn’t a whole lot we can do about it, but we’re watching it.”

Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley said sheriff’s office deputies were busy with a number of vehicles sliding off the slushy, slick roads. Fortunately there were no major accidents or injuries. Many of those who slid off the road were out-of-state tourists who weren’t prepared for the snow and, in some cases, were from areas they don’t have to drive on snow.

“I think they were as stunned as we were,” Mechaley said.

Mechaley estimated there were around 20 calls for vehicles that had slid off the road, including an incident on the eastern side of the county in the Folsom area in which someone attempted to drive through water running across the road and got sucked into Spring Creek, where their truck floated downstream.

County highway department staff spent two days plowing the snow which saturated the roads and rendered many of them a muddy mess. County highway superintendent Gary Woodford said culverts washed out and water ran over roads in some places, which takes the edge off the road and requires them to be repaired when the rain and water subsides.

On Friday, water was still running over some roads and forcing closures. In one area, a large culvert went over the top of a road east of Fairburn and took out nearly a third of the road.

“It created havoc for us when we need them to be drying out,” Woodford said. “There are a number of roads it’s going to take us time to get back to normal.”

Almost every road had tree branches and limbs across them, Woodford said, which will require the county to clean up and put them through a chipper.

Woodford said the county highway shop on the eastern side of the county received 4-1/2 inches of rain, and that was on top of the already wet weather.

Woodford asked for the public’s patience as the highway department repairs roads, as it will have to dry out some before much work can be done.

Alex Calderon, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Rapid City, said Custer officially received 15 inches of snow from the storm.

“It can happen in the Black Hills,” Calderon said of the late storm, pointing out the latest measureable snow Custer received was in 2008 when a half an inch of snow fell June 20.

Calderon said the recent storm crossed the western United States and made it onto the Central and Northern Plains before “tightening up” and strengthening over the area.

“It produced a lot of liquid, which is what we expected and what we had been saying several days before,” he said.

As of May 23, Custer had received 3.32 inches of precipitation in May, while the average for the month is 3.12. For the year, Custer was at 8.02 inches as of May 23, well above the average of 7.11 for the same time frame.

As one might imagine, the storm and general wet weather is taking a toll on the tourism industry. Alex Niemann, owner of Adventure Rentals, said having trails in the Forest closed due to moisture is hindering his business. He has heard of large parties cancelling hotels and trips here due to the weather.

Those who have reserved UTVs or other machines from Adventure Rentals are receiving refunds if needed, although there are still trails that customers can drive, he said.

“It doesn’t look like it [the weather] is going to get better any time soon,” Niemann said. “That’s unfortunate.”

Steve Saint, owner of Fort Welikit, said he lost 12 reservations last weekend alone due to the weather, and expects more. While a few people have arrived and braved the weather, he said most people don’t want to deal with the snow.

Count him among those people.

“I’m tired of snow. I’m tired of cold,” he said. “I’ve been wet and soggy for three days dealing with snow. It’s not been pleasant.”

Saint said he has had to deal with some downed trees at the campground, as well.

He hopes September will be good for weather, as that is his opportunity to get back some of the business he lost this spring.

In Custer State Park, 15 to 20 inches of snow fell. Due to the already saturated ground and the wet snow, trees broke everywhere there is forested acreage, said park visitor services program manager Kobee Stalder.

Early estimates of trees that fell are in the thousands, he said, and fell in multiple places over Highway 16A, Wildlife Loop Road, Hwy. 87 south as well as in campgrounds, on hiking trials and by visitor centers. Power was also lost to all park buildings, campgrounds and staff housing.

“Thankfully, we have an amazing staff and everyone dropped their day-to-day duties and put on gloves and helped out with our clean-up efforts,” Stalder said.

The South Dakota Department of Transporation, South Dakota Wildland Fire, workers in the Wildlife Division and Black Hills Energy all chipped in wtih the cleanup.

“We will still be working on clean-up efforts all this week and probably well into June, but I think we will all remember this storm for years to come because of the effects it had on the park,” he said. “The positive side of it was some of our visitors from the southern states were able to experience snow for the first time.”

Hotels are suffering too, said Marcel Wahlstrom, president of the Custer Business Improvement District (BID) board. He and wife, Sherry, own the Bavarian Inn and have not seen the early season traffic they normally would, he said.

“I can’t say that for all the hotels. I know it’s on everyone’s mind,” he said. “But it’s one of those things you don’t really have any control over.”

Wahlstrom said the optimistic side of him says that as soon as the weather turns, Custer will be busy, as schools are getting out in other states and the weather will not stop people from taking planned vacations. Until then, however. the snow is “tourist repellent,” he said.

“It’s an unfortunate way to start the season. Everyone is motivated to get their place open and right now it’s not going anywhere,” he said.

However, Wahlstrom said the BID board has saved some of its money for later in the season for advertising, which should attract people to Custer when the weather is nicer, hopefully counteracting the early-season losses.

Calderon said Custer “probably” has seen its last snow of the season, but he stopped short of a guarantee. After all, it’s the Black Hills.

“I never say ‘never,’” he said.