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March storm

High winds and blowing snow made for slow going in Bismarck on 3-31 as a winter blizzard closed schools and many offices in North Dakota's capital city. Above, a pedestrian crosses North Fifth Street in this early morning view of downtown Bismarck's central business district.

In some places, Monday was Opening Day for baseball, a sign of spring up there with birds returning from the south and flowers poking through the soil.

But there was no joy in North Dakota, where a blizzard closed schools, hampered travel and endangered young livestock. The snow has returned.

March had been pretty quiet, snow-wise. Before Monday, only 3 inches had fallen in Bismarck. The snow was virtually gone in much of southern North Dakota. But the month’s final day would serve to remind everyone that spring storms can pack the most punch.

On Monday morning, the flakes started coming in a hurry. In Bismarck, the record high snowfall of 1.6 inches, from 1932, was broken early. By 4 p.m., 8.1 inches had fallen there. Making matters worse, winds gusted to 40 mph.

National Weather Service meteorologist Adam Jones said around 4 p.m. most of the snowfall reports had come from west of Bismarck, where some places had nearly a foot of snow. A report from south of Anamoose at 2:45 p.m. said 12.5 inches fell there. Jones expected higher totals from Jamestown to the northeast.

“I would bet those areas are going to get more than a foot of snow,” he said.

The inclement weather could not have come at a worse time for ranchers.

Steve Brooks, who ranches in the Bowman area of southwestern North Dakota, said he had about 450 newborn calves and about 50 cows still waiting to give birth.

“It can be tough on them,” he said around sunrise Monday. “We’ve got 5-6 inches of snow (and) the winds are blowing.”

Ranchers prepare for bad storms by bringing their animals closer to the farmyard and monitoring them around the clock.

{“You stay up with them all night, all day, try to catch them just as soon as they start calving and get them in the barn,” Brooks said.

He said animals that have calved are put behind shelter, such as tree rows that block the wind, though he said the wind was shifting around Monday and “where we’ve got them, eventually they’re going to be in the wrong place.”

Brooks, 60, has been ranching his entire life and said he’s seen worse blizzards, including some in which he has lost up to one-fifth of his calves.

South Dakota Stockgrowers Association Executive Director Silvia Christen said she didn’t expect a repeat of the early October blizzard that killed more than 43,000 cattle, sheep, horses and bison in that state.

Because heavy winter fur hadn’t grown in last fall, the animals were more susceptible to the extreme weather, she said.

“At this time of year, all of these cattle have gone through the toughest part of winter, so they’re pretty well acclimated, have their heavy fur,” she said. “Most are going to come through OK.”

Jones said March is the snowiest month, on average, making the last-day-of-the-month storm far from unusual.

“We get these kinds of storms in later winter and early spring,” he said.

The main difference between Monday’s storm and the typical spring blizzard was how cold the temperatures were. Most spring storms feature temperatures in the 20s and 30s, while temperatures remained in the teens in most places on Monday. Jones said the snow-to-liquid-water ratio was fairly high, meaning it was a somewhat dry snow.

The storm had been in the forecast for a few days, and by Monday morning, officials throughout much of the state decided not to wait for the blizzard to start to start shutting things down. Schools, including all the public and private schools of all levels in Bismarck and Mandan, closed. Medical clinics closed early. Buses didn’t run. Other agencies told their employees early that they’d get a snow day, even before snow started.

No travel was advised in the state for much of the day before the North Dakota Department of Transportation closed Interstate 94 from Bismarck to Fargo and Interstate 29 from Fargo to Canada at 3:30 p.m.

Greg Haug, manager of the Bismarck Airport, said airlines started cancelling flights on Sunday in advance of the storm. No flights had arrived or departed from Bismarck from Sunday night through Monday afternoon. A few people were milling around the terminal, in hopes that a flight would get off the ground.

“It’s not a complete and total ghost town,” Haug said.

He was hopeful that maybe as the snow moved out, conditions would improve enough to get things flying.

“I think there’s a chance we’ll start seeing some operations by the end of the day,” Haug said.

Jones said the snow was stopping west to east, and the wind would do the same throughout the night. He expected the snow to be out of North Dakota by 4 or 5 a.m. Tuesday.

No matter when the snow moves out, some places already are planning on delays for Tuesday morning. Sanford Health clinics, with the exception of the downtown and north walk-in clinics, will not open until noon in Bismarck and Mandan. The walk-in clinics, along with Dickinson clinics, will keep their regular hours.

“Hopefully by tomorrow things will clear out and we can get back to normal,” Jones said.

He said temperatures are expected to be in the 30s this week, building into the 40s or 50s by weekend. However, he had some bad news.

“More snow might be on the way,” Jones said.

He said there is a chance for “minor accumulations” Wednesday night to Thursday morning, but he said forecast models weren’t in agreement on the storm.

“We’l have to see how that changes,” he said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Jenny Michael at 701-250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.)

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