Winter Weather Leaves Thousands Without Power or Water

Even though the winter of 2009-10 isn’t yet half over, it has already been one to remember in South Dakota. Temperatures have been even colder than usual, inches and inches of snow have fallen, and even when the snow hasn’t fallen, fierce winds have blown around what was already on the ground. There is something seriously frustrating about shoveling the same snow more than once!

We traveled across our great state this weekend and got a belated glimpse of some of the havoc our extreme winter weather has caused.

There were livestock fences and wind shelters entirely covered in snow. Many large fields of corn stood unharvested after an unusually wet fall followed by the early arrival of winter. And even while there were areas of brown ground exposed in some places, just a short distance away there were mature shelter belts of trees with only branches poking out of enormous snowdrifts.

Repairing Power PoleBut perhaps the most striking blow the weather dealt was the large ice accumulations on power lines and poles, leaving thousands of people all across the Northern Plains without electricity for days, even weeks. The picture at right was borrowed from

We saw some of these downed power poles first hand. They looked like splintered toothpicks lying on the ground with lines sagging toward the ground or even snapped completely apart. And fixing these poles was obviously a daunting task. First crews needed to plow away the snow just to access the area for repair.

Entire communities have suffered from these extended power outages, and in these cases another problem has also arisen – a shortage of water. The community water towers drained quickly. And with no electricity to pump water or to run water treatment plants, residents were left without water not only for drinking and cooking, but also for flushing toilets, taking showers, or washing dishes and clothes.

Those living in the country have added challenges – they often have livestock to feed and water, and the power lines leading to their single-family homes are generally fixed only after those serving entire communities have already been repaired.

But country folks sometimes have it easier, too. Most have their own well and their own septic systems, making them more self-sufficient and generally taking care of any water shortage issue. Many also own standby generators to cover when the power goes out, so they are better prepared for the wrath of Mother Nature.

The plight of South Dakotans has gained some national news attention. An article will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times, for example. But generally our rural weather hardships are being rightfully overshadowed by the earthquake devastation in Haiti.

My ranching in-laws say this winter must compare to that of 1949, which has gone down in history as the worst winter of the 20th century for South Dakota. The only difference, they say, is that farmers and ranchers today have four-wheel drive tractors so they can still get the snow cleared to get out and take care of their animals in spite of the weather. Thank goodness for that!

Calving and lambing starts soon here, so hopefully we will at least get a break from the blustery weather. Even just a couple weeks of 40+ degree temperatures would help us better cope!