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The Black Hills Blizzard: My Account [PHOTOS]

Near Keystone, SD, October 3, 2013
Dan Collins 2013

“Can I put this in the cart, dad?”, my oldest son asked holding a bag of red licorice.

“Sure, go ahead”, I replied.

We were grocery shopping in Rapid City for the big 4 day trip to a rental cabin near Keystone, SD for our annual “guys trip”. My sons, ages 7 and 8, and I have been taking this trip for the past 4 years in which we hike, fish, ride atv’s, and have bonfires every night.

The timing is perfect for the vibrant colors the Black Hills have to offer. This year, however, we knew there could be snow. What we didn’t know, (nor the local weather forecasters), was how much.

We bagged our groceries and put them into the cart to bring out to our SUV when an old woman,  with deep creases in her aged face, stood in front of us.

“Are you going up in those hills?”, she asked me.

“Yes. For the weekend”, I said.

She looked at the boys and then said, “Be very careful. Big storm coming.”

Then, just like that, she walked slowly away. I must admit. That was a bit eerie.

We packed the vehicle full of groceries and a few extra camping supplies, thanks to the ominous warning, and proceeded up into the hills in a foggy drizzle.

We arrived at the cabin, put the groceries away, stowed our gear in the sun-porch, and went to explore the surroundings. By the time we came back to the cabin it had started to rain.

Before turning in for the night, we watched the local newscast and waited for the weather report. It was far worse than even 6 hours before. Now, the forecast was calling for possibly 12″ of snow, perhaps 24″ in the Lead area.

A very loud crash rattled the cabin and awoke me at around 2 a.m.. I jumped from my bed and ran to the boys’ room. They were still sleeping.

I tried to turn on the light but realized we lost power. I grabbed the flashlight, found the matches and lit a candle on the dining room table. I peered outside and saw several large branches had fallen due to heavy ice and snow. I also saw a large branch hanging off of our roof over the back window.

The tree that fell on our cabin overnight.
Dan Collins 2013

With only electric heat, I hoped that the power would be restored soon as it was already getting chilly in the cabin. I found extra blankets in the linen closet and put them over the boys, who were still sleeping soundly.

I dozed off on the couch wrapped in a blanket after an hour.

“Dad, wake up”, I heard my oldest whisper a few hours later. “It’s freezing in here.”

“I know, buddy. We lost power a few hours ago. Crawl back in bed and try to stay warm. We’ll figure out something soon.” I said.

We were all up by 8 a.m. and received a visit from the cabin owners who informed us there were no generators and the plumbing was not going to work as long as there was no power.

Meanwhile, a gentleman in the neighboring cabin was loading his vehicle. He told me he was going to try to get to Keystone. Perhaps they had electricity.

I couldn’t risk staying another day with the boys with me so we decided to load up everything and head into Keystone.

Old Hill City Road
Dan Collins 2013

The road was treacherous. Snow and ice packed with several twists and turns. Going slow and praying that the SUV would hold on to the road, we made our way into Keystone.

The town was eerily quiet. Not one business was open. Hotels were closed along the main highway. Every store was black. There was one person shoveling snow off the storefront walk. I asked if there was any place to stay. “Not without electricity”, she replied. “Everyone is stranded. You could try the Holiday Inn up the road. I saw a handful of cars there earlier this morning. Maybe they have generator. Be careful.”

“Thanks for your help”, I said getting back in the Tahoe.

The Holiday Inn had downed power lines though the parking lot and across the front of the hotel. This was bad…and getting worse.

I made a decision. We must get to Rapid City and hope they have power.

On the way to Rapid City
Dan Collins 2013

Going slow, the 20 mile trip took nearly 90 minutes but we soon found ourselves on the north side of Rapid City. And we saw lights! It was snowing heavily with high winds but we made it.

We immediately found the nearest hotel and checked in. They had vacancy. Another little miracle as we would soon come to learn that rooms were a very precious commodity in this storm.

We loaded our gear in the room and the kids turned the light switch “on” and “off” several times. We laughed, thankful that we once again had power.

We walked to the ‘TGI Friday’ next door. Ordered large burgers and fries with sodas, recalling the harrowing trip down the hills. We said a prayer for all the people who were in danger from this snow storm.

The lights went out as we were finishing the last of our fries.

Over the next 48 hours we saw milk traded for batteries. We saw apples traded for flashlights. We saw a large tour group from Florida yell, “Lord, have mercy!” every time an update came across the emergency radio by the front desk.

We saw an elderly man helped from a Rapid City Search and Rescue Sno-Cat outside the hotel. His family was waiting for him. He had been stuck in his car for 14 hours. I saw him later that night and asked if I could get him anything. He said he had a steak that kept cold during his ordeal.

“If only I had a way to cook it.” he said. I told him I had a disposable grill in my camp pack for emergencies that he could have. He offered my $50 for it which I declined. “Take it. It’s yours. You’ve earned it.”

He tearfully hugged me.

We spent the next two days in the dark. We walked the hallways of the hotel several times with a flashlight for exercise and to keep the boys occupied. We had several snowball fights, all of which, I lost.

I charged my phone in my vehicle to keep in touch with those at home to let them know we were safe.

The nights in the hotel room were cool but bearable. We put towels under the door to keep the draft out as the hallways were cold. But at least we had shelter.

We got used to living by candlelight. Eating out of our camp pack and the groceries we purchased. We wondered about the well-being of the elderly lady that warned us of the coming storm.

The boys learned a few life lessons as did I. At least we were safe. We had shelter. Many didn’t.

Overall, we had 7 hours of electricity on our 4-day trip.

We later learned that the cabin we were at received nearly 30″ of snow. Lead got 43″ and Deadwood received a record 48″. Sadly, there was also at least one death related to the storm.

Here’s a few of the scenes around the hotel we woke up to Saturday morning, including our Chevy encased in ice and snow.

Our vehicle encased in ice and snow
Dan Collins 2013

There is a car in there somewhere…

Snowstorm Rapid City
Dan Collins 2013
Snow storm October 4 and 5, 2013
Dan Collins
patio furniture at the Country Inn and Suites
Dan Collins

I – 90 eastbound opened late Sunday afternoon after clearing hundreds of cars and cattle off the road. The drifts were up to 20 feet in some open areas and cattle walked over their fences and into the road. With limited visibility due to 70 miles winds, unfortunately, motorists had no warning before hitting them.

We arrived back home to hugs late Sunday night from my wife, Heather, and our daughter, Elliana.

Overall, we are very thankful to be home. The boys will have quite a story to tell their classmates Monday morning.

6 Images of the South Dakota National Guard Helping State



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