Two days into a three-day blizzard, cabin fever was setting in for Randy Brousseau of Kidder County. He was huddled under the blankets with his family trying to stay warm without power when he got the call. A farmer was having a heart attack.
From the looks of the storm raging outside, Brousseau, a member of the county’s volunteer ambulance crew, thought there was no way they could go anywhere. But they tried anyway.
Tuesday marks the anniversary of the ‘97 blizzard that dumped as much as 2 feet of snow in some areas and brought Bismarck's seasonal snowfall total to more than 100 inches.
The first week of April 1997 had given people hope for spring after having been ravaged by nearly 10 blizzards that season. Temperatures were in the 60s that Friday, according to the National Weather Service.
But late that night, things took a turn for the worst.
By Saturday afternoon, April 5, heavy snow was falling across the state, with accumulations on average of 1.5 to 2 inches an hour, according to National Weather Service reports. Sixteen inches fell at Jamestown and New Salem, 17 at Bismarck and Center, 18 at Dickinson and Washburn, 20 at Hebron, Carson and New England, 22.5 at Mott and 24 inches at Bowman. Winds blew 50 to 60 mph, knocking out power to tens of thousands of homes.
Ranchers would be hit hard. An estimated 100,000 head of cattle — 10 percent of the state's heard — was lost, mostly calves and yearlings. As a result of the carnage, the North Dakota National Guard used bulldozers to dig pits and bury the carcasses en masse.
The storm’s precipitation marked the beginning of the end for the already saturated Red River Valley. The river went over the dike in Grand Forks on April 18, flooding the region.
An estimated 75,000 homes were without power for sometime over the weekend as a 345-kilovolt line from Basin's Antelope Valley power plant tripped and couldn't be restored until the following Monday. In eastern North Dakota, the storm knocked over 540 of Minnkota Power's poles and nixed power to 70 distribution substations. And a coal mine crew in Mercer county was stranded in their dragline.
Interstates 94 and 29 and all other major highways in the state were closed.
“We knew we were supposed to get some bad weather but not to that extent,” said Brousseau, who had gone out in storms previously after joining the ambulance crew 20 years earlier.
This time, two plows led the way and the ambulance crew kept its eyes on the taillights. It would take 10 hours to reach the man.
“Visibilty was so bad,” Brousseau said
At one point, a wrong turn was made and the plows got stuck.
A farmer led the ambulance the rest of the way to the farmyard. When the snow got too deep, the farmer hooked onto the ambulance and pulled it the rest of the way into the yard. Brousseau said the rest of the rescue went smoothly and the patient was stable all the way to the hospital in Bismarck.
Hard on the herd
“What made (the '97 blizzard) significant was everyone was calving,” said rancher Melvin Leland.
On the western border of North Dakota, where his father homesteaded 106 years ago and Leland still ranches today, there wasn’t much he and his family could do to prepare for the storm. Their cows were turned out on the range to have their calves and the Lelands relied on natural protection.
A couple calves had been born the night before the storm hit. By the time Leland was able to check on them, they had been buried in a 12-to-15-foot snow drift. Another calf that had gotten disoriented stood frozen to death in its tracks.
The Lelands lost eight to 10 calves to the storm. Others in the state lost more. As a result of that experience, the Lelands built a storm shelter in the pasture.
Over the following days, Leland said it was hard to get around, even with a front-wheel assist tractor. He would plow through to deliver a load of hay and the wind would blow the snow back in behind him.
Leland usually checked cows every couple of hours during calving season, but, when the weather was that bad, he often was forced to stay out without much rest.
"Any farmer or rancher knows what I'm talking about," he said of the need to do whatever they had to do to get through it and care for the animals
Julie Ellingson, a rancher and executive director of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, had gone to Dickinson to help plan the Junior Beef Expo. When she left Bismarck, it had been a day very much like this past Friday. With spring starting to show, many ranchers had moved their cattle out of the feedlots and onto early spring grass.
It wasn’t until Ellingson and her husband got to New Salem on their way back east that the weather started to turn and roads iced over. They had contemplated staying the night, but luckily they kept going.
Ellingson and her husband had a small herd at the time. When they checked on their yearling bulls that Saturday morning, they saw the windbreak in the corrals completely filled with snow.
“Our hearts sunk when we thought (the cattle) were covered,” she said, but the herd had found a place to huddle near the water. None were lost. "The winds were so incredible.”
She and her husband held hands walking through the yard to keep from being blown away from one another.
“I couldn’t see him but could feel him,” she said.
Ellingson said her parents have often compared storms to another record blizzard in 1966.
“For me and my generation, ‘97 is one that’s hard to beat,” she said. “That April storm was one to remember. It’s 20 years later, and I still feel the wind on my cheeks.”