When it rains, it pours: Hills hit with floods

By Gray Hughes

T’S NOT SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE THIS — Spring Creek at Crooked Creek Resort and RV Park was inundated with water that flooded the campsite Wednesday, May 29, resulting in power being cut off to sites, the road to the motel was washed out and campers needed to be moved to higher ground. [PN Photo/GRAY HUGHES]

Rain socked the Black Hills and the surrounding areas Saturday, May 25, through Tuesday, May 28.

Much of Hill City, Keystone and the surrounding areas had to deal with water that flooded streets, parking lots and campgrounds.

On Tuesday in Hill City, water came rushing down Spring Creek, going nearly a foot above its banks, according to Brett McMacken, city administrator for Hill City, at the Hill City Common Council meeting on Tuesday, May 28.

Bishop Mountain Road and Newton Avenue needed to close Tuesday night; however, by Wednesday morning it was opened back up.

Two campgrounds in and near Hill City where Spring Creek flows were particularly affected: Trail Side Park Resort and Crooked Creek Resort and RV Park.

“We had water coming down the creek and Bishop Mountain Road,” said Denise Etzkorn, front desk manager at Trail Side Park Resort. “We needed to evacuate. We needed to get the RVs out of there, but one road was covered and the bridge was covered with water.”

At Crooked Creek Resort, the road to the motel was washed out, said Eric Larson, who is in the process of buying the campground.

By his estimates, Larson said the water in the campground was flowing at 15 to 20 miles per hour.

“When it rains it pours,” he said.

Only one campsite needed to be moved, he said — two brothers from Wisconsin needed to move to higher ground.

Battle Creek in Keystone also caused flooding there.

“We had Main Street in Keystone closed to one lane because of the flooding there,” said Capt. Tony Harrison of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. “We were able to maintain traffic flow. We didn’t have any major issues, but we were preparing to shut down Main Street if needed.”

The water crested in Keystone by noon on Tuesday, he said. It was a “big deal” when the rain slowed down.

All the roads in the area were opened by Wednesday morning, he said, with no washouts.

It was feared that the road leading to K Bar S Lodge near Keystone was washed out. However, Harrison said the road held.

This storm was the worst storm Harrison has seen in his two years at a patrol captain for the sheriff’s office and one of the worst he’s ever seen.

“It is bad mainly because we have so many tourists in the area that aren’t familiar with the roads,” he said. “Locals know the roads and know how to get around or get across. Our tourist population doesn’t know that. It is concerning for us that we would have tourists washed away.”

When the sheriff’s office issues a no travel advisory, people should listen, he said, even if the traveler knows the roads.

There is no way to know if there is any washout or sinkholes, he added.

“That is why we suggest people don’t drive across it,” Harrison said. “When the weather is like that we are busy. We are busy checking roadways. We send deputies to keep an eye on them and when we need to fish someone out of the water that is resources we could be doing for other things. It doesn’t take a lot of inches of water to float a car.”

The rains and floods also caused issues on the many trails in the Black Hills.

Black Hills National Forest officials are continuing to monitor hazardous conditions across the forest.

“People should use extreme caution if headed out on the Forest,” said Scott Jacobson, public affairs officer for the Black Hills National Forest, in a release. “Trees are down across roads and trails, and more will fall. Lakes are up, Pactola boat ramps are closed, streams and creeks are flowing at all-time highs and some footbridges and roads are washed out. Motorized trails and seasonal closures remain closed.”

In the Hell Canyon Ranger District, America Center Road on the Custer State Park side, Grizzly summer homes and Trail No. 15 Iron Creek are closed or inaccessible. Trails that are accessible but heavily impacted are: Sunday Gulch summer homes (road on the south end of residence open — road on north end closed due to culvert washed out), Camp Remington Road and all Black Elk Wildernress/Norbeck Wildlife Preserve non-motorized trails due to significant broken and storm-damaged trees which makes many segments of the trail inaccessible.

A strong El Niño contributed to a top 10 wettest May for Hill City and the surrounding areas.

For May in Hill City, there was 6.62 inches of rain, said Melissa Smith, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Rapid City, which made it the ninth wettest May on record (the wettest May was in 1965 with 10.61 inches of rain, Smith said).

“This May was very similar to the May of 2015,” she said. “There was an El Niño then, also. May is typically one of our wettest months, anyway, and with the El Niño we saw this year that came in late February, we saw a lot of precipitation from late February into May. We get that a lot with El Niño conditions.”

An El Niño season is caused by a warming in the ocean surface in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, according to Climate.gov. The low-level surface winds, which typically blew from east to west along the equator, weaken.

During an El Niño, the jet stream is lower, and rising air motion — which is linked to storms and rainfall — increases over the central or eastern Pacific Ocean, where the surface pressure is lower than average.

El Nño is a naturally-occurring weather phenomenon that occurs every two to seven years, according to Climate.gov.

What an El Niño means for the Black Hills, Smith said, is more moisture, such as this winter and spring.

This spring, Hill City received 10.93 inches of rain and 48.7 inches of snow, according to data supplied by Hill City.

In total, Hill City received 59.63 inches of rain and snow in the months of March, April and May this year.

And other areas around Hill City also had a top 10 wettest May, Smith said. At Pactola Dam, there was 7.8 inches of rain, which made it the ninth wettest May on record. The wettest May there was 1961 with 10.29 in 1962. At Mount Rushmore National Memorial, there was 8.95 inches of rain, which made it their fifth wettest May on record (wettest May at Mount Rushmore was also 1962 with 10.88 inches of rain).

This spring resulted in flooding not just in Hill City and the Black Hills but also throughout the state.

On May 22, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem requested a Presidential Disaster Declaration to aid South Dakotans and local government entities recover from property damage sustained during the statewide winter weather and flooding this spring, according to a release.

A preliminary damage assessment indicated roughly $43 million in damage to public infrastructure in 58 counties — including Pennington County — and three reservations. For individual assistance, there is a roughly $3 million assessment covering 16 counties and three reservations.

Noem wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump that South Dakota had “a historic severe winter storm of rare intensity,” according to a release, that began on March 13 and continued through April 26.

“The winter weather and flooding caused many issues with public and private infrastructure throughout the state as well as the extreme emotional toll on impacted citizens,” wrote Noem. “Citizens continue to experience ongoing issues with their homes and businesses because of the flooding.”

On Friday, May 31, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced $1.5 million for emergency repairs to flood-damaged roads and bridges in South Dakota.

These funds are “quick release” Emergency Relief funds from the Federal Highway Administration, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation release.

The $1.5 million in funding will be used to pay for repairs made to restore essential traffic and prevent additional damage through the state.

Damage assessments from this event are still underway for other federal-aid highways in the region that were also damaged by the severe weather events this spring. The quick release will pay for short-term repairs while South Dakota continues to assess long-term repairs, which is expected to be over $9 million, according to the release.