Surviving the snowpocalypse

It may have not been the strongest blizzard to ever strike the Vermillion area.

At times, the storm system that moved across South Dakota would blow and snow for a while, take a breather, and then snow some more.

After several fits and starts, and what seemed at first to be an unwillingness to bring widespread misery to the region, Mother Nature finally decided, after a dropping a few inches beginning the afternoon of Dec. 23, through most of Christmas Eve, to really let loose on Christmas Day.

By the day after Christmas, the wind was howling as the snowfall began to lessen.

When it was all over, Vermillion residents found a special holiday gift had been left on their streets, driveways and sidewalks – 23 inches of winter precipitation, sculpted by the wind into drifts that, in many places, were over three feet in depth.

It's the most snow that City Manager John Prescott has encountered in the nearly five years he has lived in Vermillion.

"I don't ever remember us having it snow as much at one time like this," he said.

City street department workers put snow removal equipment to work beginning at approximately 2 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 26. They finished up at about 4 p.m. Saturday, leaving most major streets in Vermillion negotiable by automobile.

Drivers had to use caution, however. The 14-hours of non-stop labor included using motor graders and sand trucks, some outfitted with blades on the front, to move the snow into ever-growing piles that divided streets right down the center.

The task of removing the long, high man-made drifts had to wait as city workers focused on taking care of other tasks made necessary by the heavy snowfall.

"The crews worked at doing things like clearing the parking lots at city facilities, such as city hall, to make them a lot more usable for the public," Prescott said, "and they had to haul those loads out."

City workers also began the rather tedious task of digging out every buried fire hydrant along Vermillion streets.

"After a lot of our snowstorms, that's not too big of an issue, but when you get this much snow at once, those fireplugs need to be dug out," Prescott said. "It's an ongoing effort. Our crews also have been cleaning out intersections, not only to help drainage for when this all eventually melts, but to also improve visibility for drivers.

There will be some other clean-up work that will take place. Streets will eventually get widened a bit more than they are now. They are passable, but some streets in some locations are little bit tight," he said. "There's a lot of follow-up work that needs to be done."

To the west, Kennebec recorded two feet of snow, while in the Black Hills, a location near Deadwood measured 37.2 inches.

Strong winds, with gusts sometimes reaching more than 50 miles per hour, created major drifting problems for city crews, homeowners and businesses during the blizzard. Downtown Rapid City reported a gust of 76 mph Friday afternoon.

Even on Sunday, with the winds reduced to about 20-30 mph, there were drifting problems in rural areas. Because of the Christmas holiday, there were very few activities postponed or canceled due to the storm. However, many church services were canceled.

Meanwhile, some property damage was also reported with the storm. A hog facility near Centerville had its roof collapse under the weight of heavy snow, the National Weather Service reported on its Web site.

In South Dakota, both Interstate 29 and Interstate 90 were opened to traffic by Sunday after both had been closed from border to border on Christmas Day.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol reported only one fatal traffic accident during the Christmas holiday period. That's down from four fatalities in two crashes in the 2008 holiday period.

The Highway Patrol reported 76 other injury accidents during the holiday travel period from Wednesday through Sunday, when roads were slippery because of ice and snow.

The Highway Patrol said it also responded to 145 non-injury accidents, received 336 calls to help motorists, and was involved in two searches and five calls for medical help.

The Highway Patrol did not keep track of how many citations were issued for driving on interstate highways that were closed to travel because of a snowstorm.

Vermillion street crews began loading the windrows of snow lining the center of city boulevards at midnight Monday. A large snow blower attached to a tractor was used to transport the snow into waiting dump trucks.

 "As of noon today (Monday), our crews had hauled out 412 loads out of the downtown area," Prescott said. "Obviously, there will be more snow removed from other areas."

The snow is being dumped into a city-owned gravel pit located near Harold Davidson Field in lower Vermillion.

The Vermillion City Council has budgeted $64,500 for snow removal in during this calendar year. Before the Christmas blizzard of 2009, the city had spent approximately $20,000 on routine purchases and activities, including the acquiring of salt and chemicals for slick streets, and the sharpening of snowplow and grader blades.

"The guys worked a lot of overtime this weekend, and that will come out of there," Prescott said, "but we should be okay with the overall budget in terms of what we had left that we could have spent this budget year," Prescott said.

The city's arsenal of equipment that has been worked overtime following the storm includes five dump trucks, a large snow blower, and two motor graders. Some of the trucks are equipped with blades on the front to push snow.

The blizzard was part of an enormous storm system that pummeled the Central Plains from Texas to North Dakota.

Storms dumped 23.9 inches of snow in Grand Forks, ND, and 18 inches near Norfolk, NE. In the East, higher temperatures and rains have started melting and washing away last week's record-setting snowfalls, threatening the region with flooding.

The National Weather Service also issued flood warnings for parts of the South and Midwest, and winter weather advisories were in effect in sections of Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan through Sunday.

Winter weather has been blamed for more than 20 deaths across the country in the past week. One of the latest was an 81-year-old Iowa man whose body was found in a ditch Friday after his pickup truck got stuck in the snow and he tried to walk home.

The bad news is that temperatures are expected to remain below normal for the next week. The good news? There is no snow in the forecast for the next seven days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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