NORTHERN HILLS — Les and Ann Shaw’s cattle still graze in summer pastures this week.
And the calves have two to three weeks remaining before being weaned from their mommas.
So, there was something eerily familiar about the mid-week forecast that called for a cold front to move into the area bringing with it rain changing to snow, strong winds and below freezing temperatures.
On Oct. 3, 2013, an intense moisture-laden storm moved from the Rockies onto the Northern Great Plains while unseasonably cold air pushed south from Canada.
Those air masses collided over the Black Hills region. Rain fell through much of the day Thursday, then turned to snow over the higher elevations of the Black Hills during the evening. Then, early on Friday, Oct. 4, the rain changed to heavy, wet snow on the Plains of western South Dakota while wind gusts reached 50-70 mph. The snow and strong winds continued until Saturday morning, Oct. 5.
The emotional and financial impact of that storm, dubbed Winter Storm Atlas by The Weather Channel, still lingers today.
“Just like then, we’re not quite ready to bring the cattle home. The fall work isn’t quite complete, but you start thinking about what could happen. It gives you this sense of impending danger,” Ann Shaw said this week.
Silvia Christen, who served as executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association in 2013, said she, too, thought about the irony of the weather undergoing a stark change on the fifth anniversary of Atlas.
“That anxiety comes back. The memories are tough for folks,” she said.
Larry Reinhold and his family raced the clock Wednesday at their Lone Tree Ranch in central Meade County as the storm clouds rolled over the Black Hills and onto the rolling hills east of Sturgis.
“Yesterday it was 80 and today you looked over the horizon to see the clouds. It’s intriguing the similarities between today and 2013,” he said.
And what was more disconcerting was that the Reinhold’s 150 cow-calf pairs could be seen lingering close to the home place.
“They were standing right down here in the northeast corner. I couldn’t help but wonder what they were thinking,” he said.
The Reinholds lost about a dozen cattle and nearly 100 horses in the early autumn blizzard. The horses were used by campers at the Rainbow Bible Ranch camp the family operates on the ranch.
The Atlas blizzard’s most staggering toll was livestock losses. State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven estimated at the time that 15,000 to 30,000 cattle died in the early autumn blizzard that buried western South Dakota.
Cattle were in summer pastures far from shelters at the ranches. They had not yet grown thick winter coats, so they became hypothermic after first being soaked by the rain, then chilled by the snow and wind. They drifted for miles and eventually the stress on the animals killed them.
Others wandered off embankments into creeks and drowned or suffocated in the snow. Thousands of cattle, sheep, horses, and even bison died. The storm cost ranchers millions of dollars, not only from the loss of calves that were going to be sold in the coming months, but also from the loss of cows pregnant with next year’s calves.
Justin Tupper, general manager of St. Onge Livestock, said as he remembers, the cattle industry was coming into a pretty good year that year with rising prices.
“It was just devastating,” he said. “The storm took part of their factory away.”
And, just like five years ago, Congress recessed this fall without passing a farm bill.
“People didn’t know if there was going to be any relief from the government. That made that Rancher Relief Fund so beneficial,” he said.
The fund was set up as a way to help ranchers who suffered losses, Christen said. The funds weren’t intended to help producers recover fully, but rather to help bridge some immediate needs, she said.
“We had people who wanted to donate, so we thought that starting the fund would free up more time for us to assist the ranchers. The boxes of mail just started showing up. We had no idea it would grow to $5.5 million,” Christen said.
She recalls being called to First Interstate Bank in Sturgis to pick up donations from roll-over auctions they had hosted in the region.
In a rollover auction, bidders buy a calf then donate it back to be re-auctioned repeatedly, with proceeds of each bid session going to those in need.
“I stopped in Sturgis at the bank and they handed me these bags filled with money,” she said.
Christen said she felt like she needed a Brink’s armored escort back to Rapid City when she learned the bags contained a whopping $520,000.
After all was said and done, the Rancher Relief Fund helped more than 600 families impacted by Atlas.
Tupper believes ranchers have come back strong from Atlas.
“At the time, I thought that possibly some would have to sell out, but I think that bankers and neighbors rallied to keep them in business,” he said. “And in true rancher fashion they knew they had to pick up and go on.”
The Atlas storm demonstrated just how finite people are, Reinhold said.
“We get this idea that we can just about take anything on. That we’re invincible. That storm drove home the idea that we are not the master of our destiny,” he said.
In the five years that have passed since the incident, Reinhold said he and his family have often thought of “what if” scenarios that would have minimized their losses.
“It still was an unbelievable amount of destruction, but we now realize there was nothing more that we could have done,” he said.
Shaw agrees saying: “It shook us up for sure. But, we knew that as bad as it was, there was nothing we could do about it when it was happening. The weather is completely out of our control.”
Observing the anniversary will bring images of the devastation back for many, Christen said. But there will be an equal number of positive images that Christen says she will recall.
“I will think of the neighbors helping neighbors. People showing up when no one asked for help,” she said. “And of the Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets that arrived from Kansas and North Dakota.”
And who can forget the heifers for South Dakota project that placed donated cattle in the corrals of ranchers who lost so much to the Atlas storm.
“There are a lot of hard memories, but also a lot of good that came from the tragedy,” Christen said. “I think it created a new sense of community and working together that will show for years to come.”
The storm and its aftermath were a tough life lesson for the entire Reinhold family, Larry Reinhold said.
“Our kids are better for it. They have realized they cannot go through this life and handle it all by themselves,” he said. “You have a choice when hardships come and the tears flow. Many will harden their heart, but many will realize this is a time to learn, grow and reach out to others who have also gone through hard times.”
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