‘Ulmer’ fails to live up to hype

By Ron Burtz

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At least a dozen trees were downed by high winds along Sylvan Lake Road north of Custer during the winter storm here last week. Meteorologists say it takes a wind velocity of 70 to 75 mph to snap off trees.

While most of the state was coping with flooding from torrential rains and up to 18 inches of snow driven by gale-force winds, Custer County appears to have dodged most of the force of winter storm Ulmer. The so-named blizzard left behind huge drifts that buried cars as near as Rapid City and Interstate 90 was closed from the Wyoming border to Chamberlain on Wednesday night as wind gusts up to 60 mph. drove the snow which measured up to eight inches in Rapid City.

The only reported damage from the storm in our area was a number of ponderosa pine trees pushed over or snapped off by the wind along Sylvan Lake Road about a mile north of Custer. 

“We had about six huge pine trees crash from the wind,” reports Darcy Naugle. “They just snapped and broke.”

Naugle says two trees landed in the middle of the driveway of her mother Joyce’s house on the west side of the road. She says moving the trees and the snow blown in around them took about seven hours in order to be able to get out of the driveway. 

“I didn’t hear any of them,” said Naugle, who noted the trees apparently went down sometime in the night on Wednesday. “It’s pretty much a mess but it’s off to the side so we can use the driveway. My mom and dad have owned that house for 50 some years. I’ve never seen any of those huge pine trees snap like that, ever.” 

At least a dozen other trees were seen either uprooted or snapped off along Sylvan Lake Road between the Naugle home and Highway 16. 

Meteorologist Scott Rudge of the National Weather Service office in Rapid City says wind gusts recorded in the Custer area on Wednesday morning before the storm was in full force were in the range of 60 mph. One gust recorded at an observation station at Jewel Cave hit 64 mph. The station at Custer Airport saw wind gusts in the low 50s. 

However, Rudge says in order to inflict the kind of tree damage seen along Sylvan Lake Road, winds would have to be in the 70-75 mph range. He says strong northeasterly winds were coming over the Black Hills and downsloping over the Custer area which could have produced higher wind velocities in isolated areas. 

“The higher in elevation you are, the higher the wind speed,” said Rudge.

“Fortunately it wasn’t as bad as what they were predicting,” says Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley looking back on the blizzard. “We staffed up heavy for the 13th in anticipation of having problems on Highway 79 and the other highways,” said Mechaley, but adds there were relatively few problems. The sheriff says he had some deputies stationed on the east side of county in advance of the storm in case it got bad. He says there were also Custer County Search and Rescue personnel stationed on that side of the county. 

“We got together with Search and Rescue and Emergency Management and had an operations plan in place in case it got bad,” reports Mechaley. 

“Wednesday a moving van went into a ditch and had to be towed out,” said Mechaley, but he says there were no injuries and no damage to the vehicle. 

Deputies also responded to a call on Thursday about a car blocking Hazelrodt Road which had to be towed. 

Despite the high winds there were also no electrical outages reported by Black Hills Electric Co-op. 

Manager of marketing and member service Mike Chase says co-op crews “spent Tuesday and Wednesday morning making sure our tracked digger and snow cats were ready. We put tracks on our ATVs and had our crews ready to spring into action.” 

Chase says he believes the lack of outages is a result of the company’s aggressive right-of-way management program that began during the Pine Beetle outbreak.

“We have six full-time right-of-way people plus our line crews clear rights-of-way during slower times,” said Chase. “With more than 2,300 miles of overhead lines spread over 5,000 square miles in six counties, right-of-way maintenance is extremely important to reliability of our system.”

However, Chase says had there been wet snow and freezing rain along with the high winds the outcome would have probably been quite different. 

“Heavy, wet snow or ice would have built up on our poles and wires, too,” said Chase. “A half inch of ice can add more than a ton of weight per span of wire. Then, we see problems.”

Another factor mitigating on the storm’s impact in this area was probably the advance warning issued by the weather service combined with decisions by state and local officials that kept people at home. 

By early evening on Tuesday, when skies were clear and temperatures still in the 40s, the Custer School District had already canceled school for the next day. By Wednesday evening school officials were saying there would be a two-hour late start on Thursday, but later that was changed to no school at all. 

On Thursday morning as the storm was raging into a second day, Gov. Kristi Noem ordered the closure of state government offices in all South Dakota counties for the day. 

In announcing the reopening of I-90 between Rapid City and the Wyoming border on Thursday morning at 9 o’clock, the State Department of Public Safety issued the following advisory:

“Officials are asking drivers of high-profile vehicles to wait until this afternoon to travel when the winds decrease & crews have had more time to treat and reduce the amount of ice on the roadway. I-90 remains closed between Rapid City and Exit 260 at Oacoma/Chamberlain. Roads across much of the rest of the state have ‘No Travel Advised’ or are marked as ‘Impassable/Blocked.’ Crews are out where visibility allows.”

For city and county road crews, Ulmer’s inability to live up to its full potential was a welcome relief, however, County Highway Superintendent Gary Woodford says the storm did create some headaches for county crews. 

“The blizzard left the county roads with extreme drifting,” reported Woodford on Monday. “We had all of our resources out clearing the county roads. There were some drifts that were seven to eight feet deep and required the use of V-plows on our motor graders.”

Woodford says remaining snow on the roadsides from previous storms left crews with no place to push the new stuff. 

“We also are now having runoff water flowing over our roads due to culverts being frozen,” said Woodford. “It will take warmer weather to thaw them out so they are functional.”

On the east side of the county Woodford said melting snow is causing runoff which is washing debris into culverts and bridges plugging them up which results in water over the roads and bridges. 

“As soon as we get drying temperatures we will be making necessary repairs as needed,” said Woodford. 

That problem had begun earlier in the week before the storm, causing the county to issue this creatively-worded statement on Facebook: 

“7-11 Rd. is closed at this time due to flooding. Not ‛I can make it’ or ‛I have 4 wheel drive’ closed. Barricaded and closed. UPDATE: Lame Johnny Rd. will also be closed at this time. The above phrases apply to this road as well, to include ‛Just send it’ and ‛Hold my alcoholic beverage and watch this.’”

Within the town of Custer itself the drifting was far less severe. Public Works director Bob Morrison says the main issue with the storm came in the ramp-up to the event in what he called “the horrible unknown.”

Morrison says as storm warnings were becoming increasingly shrill he was busy making sure he would have the personnel available in case it turned into a prolonged thing.

“Sit and wait—that was the hardest part,” he said. 

In the aftermath of Ulmer, Morrison reported, “It worked out pretty good. We really didn’t have too many issues.”

And on a cheery note Morrison added, “Saw my first robin the other day!”