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Cows wander along West Boulevard in Rapid City, SD

Cows blinded by ice and snow wander along West Boulevard in Rapid City during the March 2-4, 1966 Blizzard. Photo by the "Rapid City Daily Journal"

The blizzard of March 2-4, 1966 is considered one of the most severe winter storms in the northern Plains and upper Midwest.  Thousands of head of livestock were killed, the entire area was out of power for days, and travel was impossible.

Six people died in South Dakota according to the “Rapid City Daily Journal”.  Two died from exposure when their vehicles were stranded: A Rapid City man was found in his car near Faith and a Yankton man’s car was completely buried west of Madison.  A rancher was found dead of exposure outside his house southwest of McIntosh. A man in Wall was asphyxiated by gas fumes from an oven used for heating.  One resident of Fort Pierre and another in Sturgis suffered heart attacks while shoveling snow.

“Livestock Killers”, a report written by Rapid City Weather Bureau Meteorologist-in-Charge (MIC) Fred McNally December 10, 1968, described the storm as one of the most deadly for livestock in the history of western South Dakota with estimates of 40,000 to 60,000 animals killed.  Many of the deaths occurred as the storm began with rain and freezing drizzle, which coated their hair and froze their eyes, noses, and mouths shut.  Others died when the wind changed direction, driving them from their shelters.  The storm struck at the beginning of calving and lambing season, when young animals are more vulnerable to harsh conditions. 

The following storm timeline is from a letter written by MIC Fred McNally to Harry Marshall of West River Electric Association, dated May 11, 1966; and a summary “Blizzard of March 2, 3, 4, 1966” written by Weather Bureau employee Arnold A. “Bud” Deutscher (unknown if it was published). All times are Mountain Standard Time (M).

March 1:  The first indication of a major storm developing for the Rapid City vicinity was becoming evident Tuesday, March 1; when the morning forecast of “Occasional snow and cooler Wednesday” was issued. This was strengthened Tuesday afternoon at 1600M when a forecast of “snow and turning colder on Wednesday” was issued. The evening and late television weather programs were advised to alert all interested persons to make it a point to keep tuned to their radio for the morning and noon weather releases on Wednesday, March 2. 

March 2:  The forecast Wednesday morning called for “Snow and colder today and tonight. Clearing on Thursday. Four inches or more of snow expected by Thursday morning”. At 1045M, it was revised to “Heavy snow and windy this afternoon and tonight” and continued to call for heavy snow.

Freezing drizzle fell from 0945-1427M.

Snow fell most of the day with winds increasing as the day progressed. By 1515M, moderate snow and blowing snow was observed.  Wind gusts of over 45 mph were recorded before the day ended.

Visibility dropped to 1 1/2 miles at 1012M and at 1515M, was reduced to ¼ to 1/16 mile for the remainder of the day and did not improve until 1856M March 4.

The temperature ranged from 30 down to 17 degrees. Most of the daylight hours had temperatures ranging from 20-25 degrees, perfect temperatures for the freezing drizzle to accumulate on roads, power lines, etc.

The Meteorologist-in-Charge of the Rapid City Weather Bureau office arranged a two man per shift coverage.  Two employees reported for duty at 1515M, prepared to remain throughout the blizzard. During the evening, it was decided to have the next two employees relieve them at 0115M March 3, two hours ahead of regular schedule.

March 3

Snow and blowing snow continued the entire day.

Visibility was zero for this day except for a period of 2 hours & 43 minutes.

Winds ranged up to more than 70 mph.

Temperatures ranged from 6 to 18 degrees.

Blizzard conditions decreased rapidly west and southwest of Rapid City.  In the Canyon Lake area of Rapid City, the visibility was near 2 miles on the 3rd.  Custer, SD did not experience severe weather during this storm.

Power failed at Weather Bureau office at 1410M March 3. This meant no heat from furnaces.  The power from FAA standby was connected and the furnaces were started at 1500M March 4, by which time the temperature in the building had dropped to 42 degrees.  Commercial power was restored at 2215M March 4.

March 4

Snow and blowing snow continued with visibility less than ½ mile until 1856M; most of the time, visibility was ¼ or less.

Snow ended at 1545M.

Winds ranged up to near 60 mph during the day.

Temperatures ranged from 7 to 17 degrees.

Due to extremely poor visibilities, the next two employees were unable to report to duty at the Weather Bureau station at 0115M after one of the men already at the station advised them to remain home.  Only emergency travel was attempted in the confines of Rapid City, with no chance of relieving the Weather Bureau crew. At 0500M March 4, it was decided to make an attempt to reach the airport with the aid of city equipment. The Meteorologist-in-Charge and another employee followed a city V-plow out of town toward the airport. Spirits were high. The plow became hopelessly stuck in a huge drift near Murphy’s Corner (Highway 44 and East 53rd Street, near the Rapid Valley Fire Department). The City then offered the use of a loader to dig the drift out and the men were to follow the machine to the airport.  The relief arrived at the airport about 1430M March 4, and the two employees who were at the office for 48 hours were more than glad to make their way for town and their homes. Two additional employees arrived at 1600M and the others returned home for the night. By nightfall on the 4th, the snow had ended and the wind diminished to 40 to 50 mph with occasional gusts to 58 mph. This caused the newly-opened road to drift closed and the airport road was blocked again during the night.  Due to these circumstances, it was decided to bring the dayshift staff out after daylight the morning of the March 5. With some detour maneuvers, this crew arrived at 0615M Mar 5. About 0700M, the roads were replowed and normal airport operations resumed.

A summary of the blizzard by Herman Stommel, North Dakota State Climatologist, appeared in the October 1966 “Weatherwise” magazine.

Snowfall from March 2-4, 1966
Snowfall March 2-4, 1966

Readers may send their memories of the blizzard by email to w-unr.webmaster@noaa.gov, using March 1966 Blizzard as the subject line or write to National Weather Service, Attn: WCM, 300 E. Signal Dr, Rapid City, SD 57701.