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Blake Nicholson / Associated Press, Published February 04 2011

Blizzard snarls I-29 traffic in South Dakota

BISMARCK – Emergency crews in South Dakota spent seven hours rescuing motorists Thursday after more than 150 vehicles became stranded overnight in a blizzard on Interstate 29 in the northeast part of the state.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Transportation De­partment Operations Di­rector Greg Fuller ac­know­ledged that a telephone system that people can call for recorded road conditions failed to warn motorists of the danger but said other warning systems, such as electronic signs along roads, were working.

“We really fell down, I would say, in our 511 management,” Daugaard said of the telephone system.

All the motorists who wanted to leave their vehicles had been rescued by noon Thursday, but crews were still towing vehicles and working to clear roads, officials said.

There were no reports of injuries despite subzero temperatures, Codington County Search and Rescue Commander Pat Culhane said.

“We had some mothers and children getting cold; a couple of people – one had diabetes and one had a heart condition – they were cold. Our priorities were to get to them first, get them transported to shelter,” Culhane said.

More than 50 people were taken to safe havens in the area, including a casino in Sisseton, a highway rest area near Wilmot and a truck stop in Summit. Other motorists chose to stay with their vehicles until the road was cleared of snowdrifts as high as 5 feet.

Culhane said the operation was going quicker than expected, and parts of the interstate between Watertown and the North Dakota border were re­opened by midday.

Tom and Mary Lynn Fischer, who live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, were returning home after a trip to Arizona when their van became stuck late Wednesday. A truck driver eventually picked them up.

“Things were clear, and within three minutes, we couldn’t see a thing,” Tom Fischer said. “I’ve never seen wind on the prairie like this in my life. This is as harsh as I’ve seen, and I’m 60 years old. The wind whipped a door right off a sheriff’s car.”

Joe Sheehan, a National Weather Service technician in Sioux Falls, said the area’s topography contributed to the unusual conditions. While the wind speeds in most of northeast South Dakota late Wednesday were only 5 mph to 15 mph, they ranged from 30 mph to 40 mph in the area known as the “Sisseton hills” and the peak gust was 56 mph just before midnight, Sheehan said.

“There’s a ridge just west of there; it rises quite a few hundred feet higher than the plains just east of the hills there,” he said. “The west winds came off the hills and accelerated.”

Janet Eastman, who works at the Coffee Cup truck stop in Summit, said the bad stretch of interstate is less than 20 miles, between the towns of Peever and Summit.

“It’s just a valley that you have to go down into, and the snow just blows across there and packs in,” she said. “This happens every now and then. Summit has its own weather system.”

Transportation officials did not close the interstate from Watertown north to the North Dakota border until early Thursday. Eastman said some area residents were upset that it was not done sooner.

Fuller said highway warning signs were put in place about 10 p.m. Wednesday and when conditions continued to deteriorate early Thursday officials began talking about closing the highway. The closure notice went out to media about dawn. Daugaard said the Highway Patrol had already begun diverting traffic around the area by then.

Steve Gust of Mitchell, who spent the entire night in his van stuck behind two semitrailers, said he called the 511 road conditions telephone line several times and there was no indication of the bad conditions in the area.

“Somebody dropped the ball,” he said.

Fuller acknowledged the blunder and said there will be an investigation.

“He’s probably correct there,” he said of Gust. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get our road conditions updated as we probably should have ... somehow it slipped through the cracks.”

Daugaard said he told the Transportation Department to change its policy so that when snowplow drivers are put on the road after normal operating hours, the road report is updated.

Gust said the lonely night he spent stuck on his way to Grand Forks to visit his son could have been avoided.

“It was pretty bleak there for a while because after 1 (a.m.) you don’t want to call anybody,” he said. “I tried to sleep but that was nearly impossible. I just listened to the radio, watched the snowdrifts get bigger.”


Associated Press writer Chet Brokaw in Pierre, S.D., contributed to this report.