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Ice Storm Anniversary

April 11, 2014, 10:00 PM by Don Jorgensen

Ice Storm Anniversary

One year ago, Sioux Falls experienced one of the worst natural disasters it's ever seen.  A devastating ice storm hit the city and it took months to recover.

The day started out like a typical spring storm. The forecast called for rain changing to snow. 

"You were approaching this rain and snow like a normal snow event that would happen in April.  It's going to snow and it'll probably melt the next day and that wasn't the case," Public Works director Mark Cotter said.

The light rain quickly changed to freezing rain. Conditions were going from bad to worse.

"We started to get calls that, based on the weather changing and ice build up, we had a tree down here and we had a tree down over there," Cotter said.

Suddenly within two to three hours, it became apparent the city was in dire straits.

"Once we started to lose power to several parts of the city, then we knew it was more than just moving some snow or removing some trees that were in the road.  It was making sure first responders could even get down the roads," Cotter said.

Power lines and tree limbs littered nearly every street, making for a dangerous situation. The city declared a state of emergency.

"Life as we know it, for about a week in Sioux Falls, it was treacherous," Cotter said.

One of those who lost power was Dick Kelly. His house in central Sioux Falls suffered $12,000 in damage.

"We had to do our roof, gutters, lawn furniture.  We had some painting we had to do; we had a broken window," Kelly said.

Besides losing branches and a tree in the boulevard, Kelly also lost a fence in his back yard.  He's still cleaning up a year later.

"I don't remember, in my lifetime, a disaster comparable to that.  I know we've had windstorms, but the devastation throughout the whole community was just unbelievable," Kelly said.

Three days later, Governor Dennis Daugaard declared a state of emergency and activated the Emergency Operations Center to better respond to the disaster.

What was dubbed "Operation Timber Strike" was fully underway.

Removal of tree branches began almost immediately with some people doing their own work. Others hauled their downed limbs to the boulevards and waited for city crews to pick them up.

Within one week, power had been restored to everyone in the community and the real work to recover was about to begin.

Drop-off sites were set up in three locations to collect tree limbs and grind them into mulch.

Chad Schroeder, who does landscaping and tree trimming work, remembers it being a dangerous situation.

"I thought driving down the street you were going to get branches on you while I'm out trying to do cleanups, so it was like, 'Oh boy.'  You didn't know if you should drive under a tree or go around on the street.  It was kind of harry I thought," Schroeder said.

Today, Schroeder is still cleaning up people's lawns from the ice storm.

"I'm seeing a lot of twigs, branches that are starting to fall now.  Not so much the whole tree, little twigs and they are quite the mess trying to rake them up.  You can't mow them over," Schroeder said.

Cotter credits good cooperation between the city, county and state for the massive cleanup.  He also gives credit to inmates who he says played an integral part.

"We heard stories that people would back up, they were just about ready to get their gloves on and there would be five or six guys from the Department of Corrections who would reach in and unload a full pickup and waving them off.  Suddenly, we went from having people backed up to where we couldn't get them in fast enough," Cotter said.

The ice storm lasted only a few hours, but it took several months for the city to make a full recovery.

In the end, the city ground up 55,000 tons of mulch, removed 972 hazardous trees and ground over 1,300 tree stumps.

One FEMA official called the city's response the absolute best debris operation from start to finish he'd ever been involved with.

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