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Early spring blizzard pummels the Upper Midwest

  • Article by: BLAKE NICHOLSON
  • Associated Press
  • March 31, 2014 - 7:08 PM

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A spring snowstorm in the Upper Midwest shut down schools and government offices, canceled flights and closed main roads and interstates Monday, while making life miserable for cattle ranchers in the midst of calving season.

The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings for much of the Dakotas and part of Minnesota, with the storm expected to linger through Monday night in some areas. Eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota could see the most snow, up to 20 inches.

The South Dakota Department of Transportation closed a section of Interstate 90 from Ellsworth Air Force Base to Wall. Officials said white-out conditions with zero to near-zero visibility, icy roads, drifting snow, as well as multiple accidents made safe travel almost impossible in some areas.

According to the National Weather Service in Rapid City, accumulations ranging from 1.5 to up to 7 inches were reported in the western part of the state. But the wind, not necessarily the snow, created the hazardous driving conditions.

"The big story was the strong wind that we had with the snow," said meteorologist Eric Helgeson. "We had wind gusts of 60 miles an hour, and that extended over most of northwestern South Dakota, including Rapid City."

Drifting snow reduced visibilities for motorists to less than a quarter of a mile early in the morning and into the early afternoon. But motorists faced even more difficult conditions in eastern North Dakota, where the weather service reported visibilities of about 300 feet Monday evening in Grand Forks.

Grand Forks Air Force Base in northeastern North Dakota required only essential personnel to report for duty Monday. North Dakota officials closed all lanes of I-29 from Grand Forks to the Canadian border around 3 p.m. All lanes of I-94 from Bismarck to Fargo were also closed and so were the lanes of U.S. Highway 2 from Devils Lake to Grand Forks.

The blizzard warnings in South Dakota were expected to be canceled before midnight Monday. Meteorologists in eastern North Dakota also expected the snow to taper off after midnight in that area, but the gusting winds could last until after Tuesday's morning commute.

Cancellations on flights in and out of the Fargo airport were "piling up" Monday, said Shawn Dobberstein, Fargo Municipal Airport Authority executive director. The airport serves five airlines.

"Whether or not there is more snow coming, visibility is what's going to get us," Dobberstein said. "A lot of people are asking about the early morning flights. Typically they're dependent on the aircraft getting into Fargo tonight, so we will see."

Many schools started late or canceled classes, as did numerous colleges and universities, including the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard closed state offices in 16 counties in the western and central parts of the state.

Numerous public and private agencies and groups throughout the region called off events.

The weather system that came out of the Rockies is not uncommon for this time of year, said Michael Mathews, a weather service meteorologist in Bismarck, N.D.

Parts of the Dakotas got wet and heavy snow, while others got a lighter, fluffier variety.

The light snow was good news for ranchers in the Dakotas as calving season is in full swing, because wet weather can make calves sick.

Steve Brooks, who ranches in the Bowman area of southwestern North Dakota, said he had about 450 newborn calves and about 50 cows still waiting to give birth.

"It can be tough on them," Brooks, 60, said around sunrise Monday. "We've got 5-6 inches of snow (and) the winds are blowing."

Ranchers prepare for bad storms by bringing their animals closer to the farmyard and monitoring them around the clock.

"You stay up with them all night, all day, try to catch them just as soon as they start calving and get them in the barn," Brooks said.

South Dakota Stockgrowers Association Executive Director Silvia Christen said she didn't expect a repeat of the early October blizzard that killed more than 43,000 cattle, sheep, horses and bison in that state.

Because heavy winter fur hadn't grown in last fall, the animals were more susceptible to the extreme weather, she said.

"At this time of year, all of these cattle have gone through the toughest part of winter, so they're pretty well acclimated, have their heavy fur," she said. "Most are going to come through OK."

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