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Remembering winter storm Atlas a decade later

Cars buried in snow in Rapid City during the October 2013 Atlas Winter Storm.
City of Rapid City
An ice-covered sidewalk.

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of a brutal October blizzard. While it was mostly just an early winter nuisance for those in East River, the severity of the storm was nothing short of devastating in ranch country.

The Weather Channel called it “Winter Storm Atlas.” Others called the “Cattlemen’s Blizzard.” Whatever the name, it proved there is no such thing as a sure bet when it comes to South Dakota weather.

The storm lasted from Oct. 3 to Oct. 5 and dumped several feet of snow in some areas.

Longtime South Dakota journalist Kevin Woster, who was stranded in Murdo as the storm set in, gave his account of the next day.

“There wasn’t any snow in Murdo, you just couldn’t get any further," Woster said. "So, the next day I slept in the auditorium in Murdo like a lot of people, and we were all trying to get west. The next day when I got somewhere around Cactus Flats on Interstate 90 is when I start seeing dead cattle. Dead cattle in the road ditch, dead cattle out in the pastures. That’s when I knew I was way wrong, this was going to be like something I’d never seen.”

The storm left tens of thousands of cattle dead. That was due to both the severe nature of the blizzard and the fact it hit so early. Cattle had not yet grown their thicker winter coats, and most were still in summer pastures that generally provide less protection than winter pastures.

For Meade County rancher and lawmaker Gary Cammack, his account verges on something from a horror film.

"So, the cows were wet, and the snow had so much moisture in it the snow was blue," Cammack said. "It’s snowing and the snow's so wet they’re breathing it in, and it almost has a drowning effect. It’s amazing how when you get to talking about it, it hits you all of a sudden. That was quite the event.”

Cammack lost 125 head and describes himself as “lucky.”

“The first thought is not the financial loss – it really isn’t," Cammack said. "It’s the fact you were entrusted to take care of a creature and you failed. Then after a while the economic loss starts to sink in.”

Efforts were made by lawmakers and businesses in the immediate aftermath of the storm, but Cammack cites the donation of pregnant cattle to ranchers in his region from the Alabama Young Cattlemen as something he’ll never forget. Without connections like that, Cammack said cattle country would be looking back on winter storm Atlas very differently ten years later.

The Rapid City National Weather Service office buried in snow during the October 2013 Atlas Winter Storm event.
National Weather Service
The Rapid City National Weather Service office buried in snow during the October 2013 Atlas Winter Storm event.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture