City, county weather storm well, officials say

Heather Goddard/The Lusk Herald A worker uses a loader to pile snow while Lusk digs out from a weekend storm on Saturday in town.

NIOBRARA COUNTY – There were few accidents and no reported injuries in connection with what a National Weather Service meteorologist called an “unusual” storm that moved through the area Saturday.

Niobrara County Sheriff Cary Gill said there were a handful of accidents and “one little rollover” on Saturday. “And a lot of snow.”

Gill credited early highway closures with keeping the public safe as the storm dropped up to a foot of snow across Niobrara and Converse counties, according to the NWS Forecast Center in Cheyenne. Travel in the city limits of Lusk was limited to emergency vehicles only, Police Chief Bo Krein added, which contributed to the overall safe weekend.

There was one report of a rural fire in the Lance Creek area caused by a wood-burning stove. Volunteer fire crews were hampered by blowing and drifting snow, eventually reaching the blaze with the help of a local resident, who was able to blade open a lane in the road.

Gill also reported a pair of Niobrara Electric Association linemen and one individual became mired in snowdrifts in separate incidents. Both ended up sheltering in their vehicles for the night and were rescued in the morning by crews digging out the county roads.

“That was a long night for them,” Gill said.

Power outages were the norm across much of the rural areas of Niobrara County, with some not getting electricity back for about 24 hours. In town, outages were spotty, Gill said, owing to a separate electrical substation serving just the community.

“We didn’t have anybody we had to go try and rescue,” Gill said. “I believe a lot of (ranchers) use wood heat, so that solved a lot of problems. I think the town of Manville was bout the only place that wasn’t out” of power.

Krein said the decision to close highways early avoided a lot of problems in town. Gill’s deputies wrote a few citations to drivers who skirted the closure gates on the highways. But, other than that, the weekend went smoothly, all things considered, Gill and Krein said.

“We didn’t have too many issues during the storm,” Krein said. “The road crews and the power companies did a great job.”

If the worst did happen, the county is prepared with emergency shelter plans, Gill said. There are facilities at the County Fairgrounds equipped with generators sufficient for heat and lighting where people could take shelter. The last time they were used was during massive flooding that destroyed several homes in June 2015, Gill said.

“People are welcome there,” Gill said. “We’ll haul them if we have to.”

Power outages were widespread across much of southeastern Wyoming and parts of the Nebraska Panhandle, said NWS meteorologist Brandon Wills. Some were just “bumps,” with power going on and off throughout the day. Other parts of the region lost power for much longer, he said, including a 15-hour outage in Cheyenne. 

Power was also out county-wide in Goshen County for about 14 hours. And there were reports of as many as 60 utility poles blown over around Sidney, in Cheyenne County, Neb., as wind speeds reached upwards of 60 miles per hour for 12 to 24 hours in much of the region, Wills said.

“The part of the storm that was unusual was the strong winds, coupled with the snowfall,” Wills said. “It’s not unusual to have heavy snows in November – some of the heaviest snows we’ve had have come in November. It was the wind that made things really difficult and hazardous.”

Temperatures were reported in the teens to upper 20s for much of the area, he said. But the sustained winds drove windchills to zero degrees and colder.

The capper was that, prior to the wind and snow, a southerly wind moved across much of the region, resulting in two days of freezing fog, he said. The fog accumulated as ice on the powerlines, which made them heavier and contributed to the widespread outages.

“It was a perfect storm, so to speak,” Wills said. “Some of the meteorologists who’ve been around here 10-plus years said this was one of the top three storms they remember, in terms of impact.

“We got lucky – there wasn’t an arctic system coming right behind it,” he said. “That would have made things really bad.”

The good news is, a second storm that made landfall on the Pacific coast early this week is going to all but miss Wyoming, Wills said. Some areas at higher elevations – 6,000 feet and above – could see a few snow showers with the pending storm, which is expected to develop more to the south, in the Texas-Oklahoma areas.

“We believe the area around Lusk should be clear, with maybe just a few snowflakes that far north,” Wills said. “Accumulations should be less than one inch.”

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