- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - On April 9, 2013, Sioux Falls awoke to a city that had assumed the terrible beauty of a post-apocalyptic Christmas card.

Nature lay a heavy hand without favor upon its own handiwork, and on that of man. Shattered trees coated with shimmering ice caved in roofs, bore down power lines, snapped utility poles, dented vehicles and crumpled fences. Streets were transformed into the naves of blocks-long crystal cathedrals, created when boulevard trees left and right slumped to form sudden arched ceilings. In many places, the weight of ice brought down whole trees or large branches, making streets impassable and marooning entire neighborhoods.

The day after the ice storm, 32,000 Xcel Energy customers were without power. The state declared a state of emergency in Sioux Falls and established an emergency operations center that remained open 21 days.

For weeks, it appeared every piece of heavy equipment and dump truck in South Dakota was at work in Sioux Falls, clearing fallen timber and hauling it away to world-record-sized slash piles near the city fleet management garage, at the W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds, at 69th Street and Cliff Avenue at the Sioux Falls Regional Landfill and at Mueller Pallets at 27059 Mueller Place. These remained open until June. City crews made repeated sweeps of the city and collected downed branches through mid-May.

At the time, Mayor Mike Huether remarked to city officials it would take a year to clean up the damage. However, a year later, little evidence of the storm is readily apparent. For people who know to look for them, an inordinate number of circular saw cuts where large branches used to be mark many trees. But the multistory slash piles where residents hauled ruined landscaping are gone, reduced to wood chips. Homes and garages have been repaired and vehicles replaced. Big Sioux River bridges that collected piles of branches like woolly beards on their abutments have been cleared. New openings in the canopy of the city forest, jarring when they appeared, now seem to have been there forever.

What remains is a sturdy satisfaction that the city can stand up to almost anything and an enhanced sense we’re all in this together.

“I think our city is getting to the point where people are sometimes suspicious of others’ motivation. We were able to put them at ease. We were purely there to help,” Paul Livermore said. He was among a group of volunteers from First National Bank who joined an effort organized by 211 HelpLine to aid elderly, disabled and low-income residents clear storm debris from their property.

Huether himself still is taken by the fact 90 prison inmates volunteered to help in the cleanup, and by being able to go to the South Dakota Penitentiary to thank them personally on behalf of the city.

“I was right smack dab in the middle of them shaking hands and hugging these men in orange jump suits. It was another example about how we all came together from all kinds of backgrounds in the spirit of helping each other,” he said.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is so powerful.’ There were no color barriers, no income barriers, not even good neighbor-bad neighbor barriers. We all worked together to get through this. It was wonderful for the inmates and wonderful for the citizens they were serving,” the mayor said.

It was satisfying for volunteers, too.

“Quite frankly, in banking, your results aren’t really tangible. When you clean up trees, you see what you did. There is definitely a tangible element to it and a sense of satisfaction,” Livermore said.

Overall, 614 volunteers took part in the HelpLine project and aided 168 residents.

Jerry Nachtigal was a member of a team of 19 Citibank volunteers. Many took time from clearing trees and limbs from their own property to help, and several had to shower at the Citibank fitness center because their homes lost power. At one particularly hard-hit property in the eastern part of the city, a dozen volunteers worked from sunup to sundown. “They were wiped out at the end of the day, but they felt really good about it.

“A year later, we can look back at the community and be really proud of the effort we put in to tackle that. From the volunteer effort through the highest levels of city government, everybody did a great job,” Nachtigal said.

Sioux Falls was presented this opportunity for civic bonding by winds from the south that pushed warm, damp air on top of cold air that was sitting over the city, according to South Dakota climatologist Dennis Todey.

“What happens is warm aloft produces rain that falls down through the colder air. It is super cooled, and it is below freezing, but it doesn’t have time to freeze until it hits something. Then, bang, it freezes,” Todey explained.

Big Bang, in this case. One-half inch of freezing rain commonly is considered a substantial storm. During a 12-hour period beginning at 3 a.m., Sioux Falls recorded 1.42 inches of precipitation. Some of it fell as snow or sleet, but more than an inch was freezing rain, according to Todey. This was accompanied by wind gusts that reached 51 mph, and high temperatures that never climbed beyond the mid-30s the next three days. The ice was slow to melt, but the pressure it exerted on trees and power lines was unrelenting.

Gary Johnson, University of Minnesota Extension professor of urban and commercial forestry, is amazed there still is a tree standing.

“Everything above a quarter-inch of ice, I start getting nervous. Above a half-inch of ice, I get really nervous. Regardless of how robust a tree is or how pliable, you are going to start to get a lot of damage. Pretty much all bets are off the table when winds as low as 25 miles per hour are combined with the weight of the ice load. When a tree moves in a windstorm like that, a lot of the damage occurs when the wind subsides for a second or two. You get a kick back. That’s when you see tremendous failure.

“If you get up to an inch of ice and wind, I can’t imagine much of anything holding together,” Johnson said.

The ice storm affected trees that already had been weakened by two years of severe drought, according to Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Forestry Supervisor Duane Stall.

“Pretty much every tree in town suffered some type of wound,” he said.

Following the city’s Operation Timber Strike cleanup, Sioux Falls officials put together statistics that almost are ridiculous in their dimensions. From public property alone, city and contract crews cut down 972 hazard trees. They trimmed 25,758 hanging branches, hauled away and chipped 55,000 tons of wood debris.

“We addressed 22,000 trees in public areas,” Stall said.

He estimates the number of trees damaged on private property could be four times that number.

Every chain saw in the area received a workout.

“We went through some bar oil, you bet,” Stall said.

For the next five to 15 years, trees damaged in the ice storm will continue to shed branches, shatter, become uprooted and die, Johnson said.

“You can look at those trees and know it’s a problem. Do you remove them now and replant them?” he asked.

There are no plans to do so, Huether said.

Even with the hazard trees removed, “there are still a lot of trees with broken branches in them in the parks,” Stall said. “It takes us five years to get through our trimming cycle.”

Damaged trees in natural areas are left standing to create beneficial snags for wildlife. They also might become reservoirs for some native insects, Stall says. But diseases are unlikely to get a foothold in damaged trees and spread through the city.

The ice storm did highlight some advantages of native species, he adds. Trees such as silver maples, green ash and lindens thrive in South Dakota’s climate. However, they are trees of the woods. They evolved growing in dense stands, and they have many lateral branches. They are poorly constructed to deal with heavy loads of ice and wind.

In contrast are native trees, bur oaks and honey locusts.

“They are used to growing in the open. They have sparse branching,” Johnson said. Bur oaks especially “defy biology. They defy just about everything. They are the ultimate prairie tree. They can take the worst beating and slough it off.”

After the ice storm, maybe the bur oak should be the official tree of Sioux Falls. It reflects the city’s character in dealing with the storm, in the estimation of volunteers and the mayor.

Neil Spicer headed a volunteer group from the Church at the Gate. The members cheerfully flexed their muscles and went beyond cleaning up the immediate storm debris.

“One lady came rolling up there with an oxygen tank. She wasn’t going to be able to get out there,” Spicer remembers of one homeowner they helped. If there were piles of branches in her yard that were clearly older than the ice storm, it was no matter.

“We might as well take that out to the road, too. Do a little yard work for her.”

After he woke up April 9 and got a first look at the storm damage, Livermore said, “I sent my son out to buy a chain saw, just because I knew I was going to get involved helping neighbors. … Some crazy people like me enjoy cutting up trees.”

Amazingly, there were no serious chain saw accidents after the storm. Huether recalls Sioux Falls Fire Rescue Chief Jim Sideras made the point publicly: “This is not the time to learn to use a chain saw. This isn’t the time to be a hero.”

In the days immediately following the storm, when chunks of ice were loosening from trees and crashing to the ground and branches still were failing, Huether said, “I remember telling people, ‘I know you folks. I know how bad you want to get out there and clean this up before the sun goes down.’ I was begging and pleading with people. ‘Please don’t do it.’ For the most part, they listened.”

The storm took its toll on him.

“The thing I lost the most sleep on was keeping people safe,” Huether said.

“After I knew people were safe and the town had gotten back to a sense of normalcy, I started to have some health challenges. The doctor said I was going through a fight or flight syndrome. My body was allowing me to fight at the highest level possible, and then it caught up with me.”

But a year after the ice storm, he drives through two areas of Sioux Falls in particular that especially worried him, the Cathedral Historic District and McKennan Park. Last April, he wondered whether they ever would recover. Now, “I kind of like the way our city looks,” Huether said.

The ice storm “forced us to address some things that maybe should have been addressed years ago. We are making drainage ways even cleaner and safer. The storm got neighbors to get rid of trees they didn’t like anymore. It forced us to kick it into full gear to make our neighborhoods as nice as can be, if not better.”

A year later, this is how Nachtigal recalls the event: “A storm of that magnitude, there are thousands of little stories about neighbor helping neighbor. The nice thing about it, you may or may not have been working with people you knew. Now, when you pass one of those people in the hall, there is kind of a smile and nod.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com


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