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Forum and wire reports, Published April 11 2013

Spring setback: As region walloped, another storm could hit this weekend

FARGO – Spring in the Red River Valley suffered another cold and snowy setback Thursday as 2 to 10 inches of wet flakes fell on the northern edge of a more serious winter storm that continued to pound eastern South Dakota and much of southern Minnesota.

And as if to prolong the misery of those hoping for green grass and warm sunshine, there is a growing chance that a strong winter storm could hit the northern Red River Valley between Saturday night and Sunday night, said the National Weather Service.

That storm could bring major snowfall and strong winds.

John Wheeler, WDAY-TV’s chief meteorologist, said Thursday he sees that storm tracking to the northern end of the valley, but more will be known today and Saturday as the pattern takes shape.

High temperatures in the region are not expected to climb out of the 30s for at least another week, Wheeler said.

If that holds, Fargo looks likely to break a 132-year-old record for latest first 50-degree day of spring. The record was set April 17, 1881.

While the weather was mostly annoying on the northern edge of the massive Midwest storm, areas to the valley’s south and east were more seriously affected.

Heavy snow heaped more headaches on the southwest corner of Minnesota, where communities are still struggling to restore power following a Tuesday night ice storm. Officials said it may be early next week before electricity is restored to areas of Nobles and Jackson counties.

Most of the main high-voltage transmission lines that feed the area snapped under the weight, leaving no outside sources of power, said Nobles Cooperative Electric general manager Rick Burud.

About 3,200 customers across Nobles County were still in the dark as of Thursday, as were 1,800 customers of Federated Rural Electric in neighboring Jackson County. Many have neither light nor heat with overnight lows dropping into the 20s.

Even if crews quickly replace the hundreds of broken utility poles and re-string the downed power lines, Burud explained, there still won’t be electricity until the region gets back onto the larger power grid.

“So we’ve got a pretty big mess here,” Burud said with a laugh. “... Probably by Sunday we won’t be laughing as much.”

The city of Worthington, which has about 12,700 residents, was limping by on its own backup diesel generator and rationing power with rolling blackouts.

Scott Hain, general manager of Worthington Public Utilities, said the city has only half of the power it needs and that large industrial customers have had to suspend production for the past two days. That includes Worthington’s largest employer, the JBS Swift pork plant, which he said normally slaughters about 19,000 hogs per day.

The snowstorm was blamed for more than 700 car accidents across Minnesota. The State Patrol said it responded to 296 crashes plus 440 vehicles that either spun out or went off the road from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. While 39 of those accidents involved injuries, the patrol says, nobody was seriously hurt or killed.

South Dakota residents hunkered down for a third day as ice and snow snarled traffic, bowed trees and basically shut down the state Thursday.

Government offices in eastern South Dakota were closed again, and many schools had previously announced Thursday cancellations.

More than 250 electrical poles in the region were downed by the ice and snowstorm, according to the South Dakota Rural Electric Association. By Thursday evening, Xcel Energy crews had restored power to nearly 56,000 people in eastern and southeastern South Dakota and southwestern Minnesota, but another 24,000 remained in the dark, the utility said.

Officials said they expected “significant progress” Thursday and that most customers would have electricity restored by late today. Another 2,200 homes and businesses served by rural electric cooperatives remained without power Thursday.

“I strongly believe there is some light at the end of this tunnel. However, we’ve got to make it through this thing,” Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether said Thursday afternoon.

Sioux Falls received about half a foot of snow overnight after seeing two days of freezing rain that coated power lines and tree branches with ice.

Those without power have been forced to improvise in order to stay warm and entertained.

Chastity Reimer and her 6-year-old daughter, Shila Erickson, made the 15-mile journey from their home near Renner to the mall in Sioux Falls on Thursday morning because they have been without power since 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Reimer, 34, said she bought a generator to keep the refrigerator running, but is frustrated that officials have not given a timetable on when her power will be back up and running. The two have been playing lots of board games over the past two days.

Snowfall totals in western South Dakota were higher than those in the eastern part of the state – reaching 30 inches in Deadwood. Rapid City had nearly that much, and set snowfall records on two straight days.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, tribal leaders are focusing on cleanup and clearing snow drifts so they can reach some of the most isolated residents. Parts of the reservation received 24 inches of snowfall, according to the National Weather Service.

“The housing clusters are completely snowed in,” said tribal spokeswoman Toni Red Cloud.

Red Cloud said the tribe currently has about 15 snowplows working the roads, but some people are worried they could run out of food before everything is cleared away and they are able to leave their homes.

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