NWS forecasters overcome nastiest elements in Federal shutdown; hike to work in blizzard

(National Weather Service Rapid City)
Snow drifts outside NWS forecast office in Rapid City (National Weather Service Rapid City)

A blizzard of historic proportions blasted the western Plains Friday and Saturday, with up to four feet of snow and 70 mph winds.

Rapid City, South Dakota was buried under 23.1 inches of snow, its second biggest snowfall on record.

Throughout this extraordinary storm, falling in the midst of the Federal shutdown, forecasters at the National Weather Service (NWS) in Rapid City – deemed essential – worked tirelessly, without knowing when they will be paid.

With roads paralyzed by snow drifts as high as 10-15 feet, several forecasters hiked to work and/or slept at the office.


Snow drifts outside NWS forecast office in Rapid City (National Weather Service Rapid City)

Consider this account typed into the National Weather Service’s chat system by David Carpenter, meteorologist-in-charge of the Rapid City office, on Sunday morning – a day after the storm had ended (first reported on at Climate Central):

Access to the office is still blocked. Two employees were able to hike in around some obstructions, but it is not possible to drive out of the parking lot due to snow drifts and downed trees in the neighborhood. The Science Operations Officer (one who hiked in) is attempting to take two stranded employees home this morning. One forecaster hiked in for his mid[night] shift last night, and I sent him home so he can come back tonight. Of the three who are on duty at this time, two have been here since 7 a.m. Friday, and I have been here since 3 p.m. Friday. . . .

Rapid City is pretty much paralyzed, and recovery and repair operations are in full swing. We have heard that the governor called in the national guard. Conference call briefing expected to take place later this morning…

In an interview, Carpenter said four forecasters remained at the office between Friday and Sunday morning, taking cat naps while rotating on and off duty.

“Nobody got a lot of sleep,” Carpenter said. “Just enough to keep us going as best we could.”

The forecaster who covered the Saturday midnight shift trekked an hour through massive drifts in the pitch dark to report to work.

“He’s a pretty hearty soul,” Carpenter said. “The drifts came up to the roof of a Ford F-150 pickup truck in our parking lot.”


Snow drifts outside NWS forecast office in Rapid City (National Weather Service Rapid City)

Conditions have improved markedly today in Rapid City but some are still snow-bound

“Streets are being cleared,” Carpenter said. “But I still have a couple [forecasters] that are sort of stranded. They do expect to be able to get in tomorrow.”

Additional reading:

NWS Staff Walks to Work in Blizzard Despite Shutdown (Climate Central)

Alaska National Weather Service office begs “please pay us” in secret message

Shutdown stopping flow of weather information as dangerous storms threaten nation

National Weather Service would continue operating in shutdown

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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