Blizzard stalls out over Upper Midwest, but end is in sight; truckers get stranded in Bismarck
Posted 12/15/22 (Thu)
BLAKE NICHOLSON and TOM STROMME Bismarck Tribune
A winter storm remained entrenched over the Northern Plains on Thursday, with yet another wave of snow crossing North Dakota, this time accompanied by stronger winds.
The conditions prompted forecasters to upgrade what had been a multi-day winter storm warning to a blizzard warning for all of the state except the Red River Valley.
The early winter blast this week has been marked by periods of heavy snow followed by lulls in the bad weather.
"It's slow-moving; it's a big system. I kind of liken it to a pinwheel -- there's just nowhere for it to go," said Todd Hamilton, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Bismarck. "It's just kind of sitting and spinning."
The enormous weather system crossing the country has spawned dozens of reported tornadoes from east Texas to the Florida Panhandle -- killing at least three people -- caused ice- and snow-related problems from the Appalachians through New England, and created blizzard conditions from the Dakotas through Michigan, according to The Associated Press.
The weather service has extended a winter storm warning posted for much of North Dakota another day, into early Friday. It had initially been scheduled to expire early Thursday.
"The problem is that downstream, it's kind of like a traffic jam," Hamilton said of the storm that has stalled over the Upper Midwest. "It's kind of blocking the system. There's really nowhere for it to go."
The end was in sight in North Dakota early Thursday -- the winter storm warning that had covered the entire state was lessened to a winter weather advisory in the western third, and Hamilton said the storm was "starting to move."
"Right now we're kind of in the stage where it's going to be lifting out and moving off to the east, but it's going to be hanging around for the day, and we'll see the wind today and tomorrow," he said.
Bismarck was expected to get up to 4 more inches of snow by early Friday, with totals up to 7 inches possible farther east in the James River Valley. Winds that had generally been less than 20 mph during the first couple of days of the storm picked up Thursday, in the range of 20-35 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph possible.
"Even though we won't have the snow totals we had with the first part of the system, that's going to be the big problem -- blowing and drifting snow," Hamilton said.
No travel was advised Thursday in much of the state. Interstate 94 was closed between Dickinson and Fargo, and I-29 was closed between Fargo and the South Dakota border. Stretches of several other highways in southeastern North Dakota also were shut down.
The Highway Patrol banned oversize vehicles from operating throughout the state, and cautioned drivers of other high-profile and long-load type vehicles about hazardous travel conditions. The state Department of Transportation said parking for commercial vehicles was limited at the interstate closure points, and it urged truckers to stop at earlier points.
Mike Waldner, an over-the-road truck driver from Wisconsin, was one of many waiting out the highway closure at Stamart Travel Center in Bismarck.
"The roads were not too bad until I hit the border, then it was done," he said of his eastbound trip.
Truckers Caro and Butch Curtiss, of Montivideo, Minnesota, also were eastbound, heading to Minneapolis, until they got stranded in Bismarck.
"It was terrible coming in here yesterday afternoon,” Butch Curtiss said Thursday. “There were five trucks in the ditch between here and Dickinson. It was really windy out of the north. I have 40,000 pounds on and I would hate to be any lighter.”
Truck stop employee Ron Crayton on Thursday morning said truckers had been pulling in for more than 24 hours. When the lot filled up, trucks began filling side streets.
"There's at least 65 trucks out there when it all came to a halt last night,” Crayton said. “And now if the wind doesn't die down, nobody's going anywhere."
Statewide road conditions can be found at https://travel.dot.nd.gov/.
Bismarck had received 13.4 inches of snow from the storm by early Thursday. Some central North Dakota communities, including Sykeston and Hurdsfield, reported up to 15.5 inches. Weather service snowfall reports can be found at bit.ly/3W29xYg.
The moisture will be welcome across the state. This week's U.S. Drought Monitor map, released Thursday, shows that severe drought continues to cover 29% of North Dakota, essentially the southeast portion and western third. Moderate drought covers 58%, and the rest of the state is considered abnormally dry.
Eastern and northern portions of Burleigh County and a strip of southeastearn Morton County are in moderate drought; the rest of the two counties including the Bismarck-Mandan metro is abnormally dry.
The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Drought Mitigation Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This week's precipitation will be factored into next week's update, according to National Drought Mitigation Center Climatologist Curtis Riganti.
Bismarck so far this winter season has received nearly 40 inches of snow, more than 2 feet above normal. The 10.4 inches of snow that fell in the capital city on Tuesday set a city record for the date, as did the 0.56 inches of moisture in the snow. The moisture mark had stood for more than a century.
Snow removal update
Snow removal crews in both Bismarck and Mandan were moving into residential areas, after dealing with emergency routes and priority areas such as schools. Residents are asked to move parked vehicles off the streets.
Bismarck crews were shifted to intersections in the northern part of the city due to drifting overnight but were planning to return to residential areas as soon as possible. Predicted snowfall Thursday into Friday might require crews to again clear emergency and major arterial routes.
"There is still a significant presence of ice from Monday under the layer of snow," the city said. "Be safe out there -- use caution when outside, as well as on roadways."
Outages and meters
Power outages were beginning to mount Thursday afternoon.
Bismarck-based Montana-Dakota Utilities, which provides electric and natural gas service throughout western and central North Dakota as well as in surrounding states also hit by the storm, reported more than 1,200 customers out in southwest and south central North Dakota at one point. The outages were down to a couple hundred by midafternoon.
Poweroutage.us, which tracks many smaller electric cooperatives, reported close to 1,000 outages statewide.
Outages often happen when strong winds whip electrical lines weighed down by freezing rain, which preceded the snow in parts of the state earlier this week. Broken tree branches also can down power lines.
MDU separately on Thursday encouraged customers to inspect their natural gas meter and furnace vent areas to make sure there is not a buildup of snow and ice.
"Accumulations of snow and ice can cause the regulator and meter to malfunction and result in a hazardous situation," the company said. "A buried regulator may become clogged, affecting the supply of natural gas to the appliances. When melting occurs and the snow becomes wet and heavy, it can put pressure on the meter setting and cause strain on the associated piping. In extreme cases, the possibility exists that the piping could break."
People who think damage has occurred around their meter should call MDU at 1-800-638-3278 so the problem can be repaired.
People operating snow equipment should also be aware of any natural gas equipment that might be under the snow, the company said.
The U.S. Postal Service is urging homeowners to be diligent about keeping mailboxes, steps and sidewalks clear of snow and ice for the safety of letter carriers.
The Capitol and other state facilities in the Bismarck area were open Thursday, after being closed Wednesday with employees working remotely. North Dakota Health and Human Services offices across the state remained closed.
Both the Bismarck and Mandan public school districts were closed Thursday, with all activities canceled. Bismarck scheduled a virtual learning day; Mandan did not.
Staff at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck were working remotely Thursday. Classes ended last Friday; this Friday's fall graduation is still planned. Theodore Jamerson Elementary School on the UTTC campus went to online learning for the rest of the week.
Dickinson State University was conducting final tests virtually, and employees were authorized to work remotely through Friday. Friday's fall commencement ceremony was canceled. Full details are at bit.ly/3Pkz9wO. Williston State College also was closed, with finals being held virtually.
Garbage and recycling was collected as scheduled in Bismarck. Collection in Mandan was suspended Thursday.
CHI St. Alexius Health clinics in the region were open Thursday; full details are at bit.ly/3Fq9HS1. Most Sanford Health clinics in North Dakota were open; more information is at bit.ly/3FPkwyA. Essentia Health-Mid Dakota Bismarck Clinics were open but closed early.
(Tribune reporter Jack Dura contributed to this story.)