Losses sink in: Victims of early October blizzard that blasted ND, SD still trying to comprehend devastation
QUINN, S.D. -- Richard Papousek said the impact of the early Oct. 4 blizzard on his cattle ranch in western South Dakota still hasn't been completely sunk in.
"I didn't think that storm was that bad when it was going on," Papousek said, remembering the blizzard that ran Oct. 3 to 5 and blasted western South Dakota, and southwest North Dakota. "You could see quite a ways during the storm, but that snow was so wet -- just heavy, heavy wet snow."
Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist, doesn't think the region ever had a blizzard "of this intensity this early in the season. Usually it's well into November before we get one this bad," he said. "This was unusually early with unusually large amounts of snow."
Some areas in the Dakotas received nearly as much snow in one day as they normally receive in an entire winter, he said.
Dennis Todey, South Dakota's climatologist at South Dakota State University, said normally, a 30-inch snow would have 3 to 3.5 inches of liquid. This one saw 5 inches or more.
Among their herd, the Papouseks had about 230 bred heifers in pastures to sell in January.
The day before the blizzard, they'd taken precautions, moving animals into protected areas, but to no avail.
"Now we have 137 of them left," Papousek said.
The tragedy began to sink in hard in the days after the blizzard when Papousek finally got to a set of yearlings south of Quinn and they had all perished.
They had become disoriented in the snow, and drifted about five miles south to Interstate Highway 90 and up to three miles east. Some crossed Interstate 90.
"You get down there and see that and you almost get sick to your stomach -- I did anyhow."
There were 75 dead yearlings along I-90.
Even more grisly was a second herd on pasture along the famous "wall of the Badlands," near the town of Wall. Now it's death valley -- ravines filled with the carcasses of dozens of his cows.
They'd been placed on the lowlands, presumably protected by the wall. But the animals found a way up a ravine and onto the plateau above, and then got lost, disoriented, and wandered back over to the precipice to their death.
Luckily, one had survived and a farm employee, Mike Luedeman, found and saved it. It was a rare positive outcome.
The emotional impact is blatant.
"They're your livelihood; you've got to treat them good," Papousek said.
Papousek ranches with his wife, Lorayna, who also is a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.
Financially, the storm has been devastating.
"I told my wife that at 60 years old, I'm not so sure I want to rebuild this thing," he said. "I was thinking about maybe retiring instead of working for the rest of my living days."
Neighbors Troy and Dawn Richter often have 300 to 320 pregnant mother cows this time of year. The storm probably reduced the herd by 100 head. Last year, the mother cows were worth about $1,500 to $1,800, but this year, Troy thinks they could go up to $2,200 or more because of strong calf prices. Some ranchers might look out of state for calves to rebuild herds.
Richter, 45, figures the storm cost his family $300,000 to $350,000.
He said his family will be meeting soon to figure out the next step, financially. The Richters have five children, including two in college at South Dakota State University in Brookings, so there are lots of things to figure out.
By Oct. 15, Papousek should have been weaning calves, but it was so muddy he waited for fear of pneumonia and because of the inconvenience of hauling in feed.
"I suppose we're going to have to wait until it freezes up to bring in the cattle to the lots and feed them," he said.
Instead, he was helping Richter haul home some stray cows that had been accumulated at the Papousek place, but couldn't immediately be moved, in part because of high water near the Richter place.
Richter said he's appreciated the help from friends and neighbors.
"We've been awful fortunate to have some awful good neighbors," he said. "There hasn't been a day yet that I haven't been on the phone with all of them, once or twice a day, wondering who can help who where. That's what'll get a person through a deal like this -- your friends and your neighbors."
Drowned standing up
Papousek said the cattle losses are hard to figure out.
"I'm pretty sure they drowned standing up," he said of his cattle, but these insurance companies "do not want to define drowning," Papousek said. "They think drowning happens in a dam. I've talked to professionals, veterinarians that say that isn't necessarily the definition of drowning." He's talking with lawyers, but isn't sure how it'll end.
"I was planning on kind of cutting back in about five years, not being in the center of a refinance deal," Papousek said, adding that he'd been planning on doing more hunting and fishing.
He has a boat at Pierre, on the Missouri River. He's in good health. But the future is uncertain. The only bright side for sure is that the extra moisture this year will mean the surviving cattle will eat well in the spring.