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A backhoe/loader pulls a pickup truck from the snow Monday, March 15, 2021, in Cheyenne. According to the National Weather Service, Cheyenne saw 30.8 total inches of snowfall over the weekend, just 1.1 inch shy of the two-day record of 31.9 inches set in 1949. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – On Sunday, during a record-breaking winter storm that dumped nearly 31 inches of snow on Laramie County, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s Elias Kfoury got a call from the emergency department: a patient had a vascular trauma and needed emergency surgery.

For Kfoury and his surgery partner, Jeremy Gates, the biggest obstacle was finding a way to get to the hospital. Both of their cars were stuck for the foreseeable future, unable to maneuver 4- to 5-foot drifts of snow. By noon Sunday, 25.8 inches of snow had fallen in Cheyenne.

Little did Kfoury and Gates know, they’d be riding to work in a Laramie County Fire District 2 snowcat. The firefighters received a call from the emergency room, then brought both surgeons to CRMC safely – where they carried out a successful operation.

“Those guys are heroes,” Kfoury said. “The first responders and how they stepped up to the occasion essentially resulted in saving somebody's life. We're very fortunate to have this caring community and that sense of family in Cheyenne, where we take care of each other.”

CRMC became a hub for snowmobile drop-offs, as Good Samaritans with snow-traversing vehicles picked up and dropped off stranded medical professionals. Across the rest of the city, roads were too treacherous, even for trucks with 4-wheel drive.

The storm turned from icy rain to snow Saturday afternoon and snowballed into the most historic one-day snowfall total in Cheyenne. By Monday, the snow reached 30.8 inches and transformed roads into sweeping white landscapes.

Wyoming’s capital city hasn’t seen snow like this since the week of Thanksgiving in 1979. According to the National Weather Service, 25.6 inches of snow fell that year, and shut down some roads for more than a week, with cattle feed having to be airlifted to different locations.

This Sunday, residents awoke to a world blanketed in a heavy coating of snow. At one point early in the morning, NWS Meteorologist Ayesha Wilkinson said, “We got 10 inches in four hours.”

“Every road needs some attention right now”

The historic storm brought road closures across all of Laramie County. Every highway going in or out of Cheyenne closed Sunday due to heavy snow and high winds, which created whiteout conditions.

As of Monday afternoon, Interstate 80 was not expected to reopen until Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation, despite it being prioritized as a 24-hour roadway.

WYDOT spokesperson Jordan Achs said drifting is the main issue crews are dealing with while attempting to clear snow, with 4- to 5-foot snow drifts in the area between Laramie and Cheyenne.

Because of the volume of snow, WYDOT crews have been using heavy equipment, including bulldozers and rotaries, to clear roads, rather than regular plows, Achs said.

Like I-80, the section of Interstate 25 that runs through Cheyenne is also classified as a 24-hour road, meaning crews expect to work around the clock to get it cleared.

“Crews are out there working right now; they'll work overnight,” Achs said.

Over the weekend, WYDOT employees dealt with the frustrating task of attempting to clear snow while strong winds blew new drifts in behind their rigs. Some plows even got stuck.

Though snow removal teams were clearing some rural routes as they could, WYDOT’s priority as of Monday was to reopen the interstates.

“We're trying to get to everything as best we can, but it's hard when every road needs some attention right now,” Achs said.

As for Wyoming Highway Patrol, troopers did their best to respond to calls over the weekend, but were limited in mobility, Achs said.

Roads within the city of Cheyenne were just as bad. Ice and snow removal crews continued work late Sunday night and into Monday morning, clearing primary and connector streets. The city contracted with additional support to assist with clearing residential neighborhoods, though that will still take time.

“Due to the scale of the storm, snow removal operations in residential neighborhoods and the downtown may take several days to complete,” a city news release said Monday.

For those stuck on roadsides and calling to ask for help, the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department is advising people who are safe and have enough gas to stay put for the time being and make sure their exhaust is clear, spokesperson Deputy Jeff Barnes said.

“If the snowplows aren’t running, then certainly we can't get through the snow drifts,” Barnes said.

But warnings from public safety departments and weather services seemed to keep many off the roads and reduce the risk of getting stuck in the first place.

“I think most people heeded the warning – they stayed at home, which was really good,” Barnes said.

The sheriff’s department has “a handful” of all-wheel drive vehicles, which deputies use in a snow emergency to pick up others and get them to the office so they can respond to serious crimes, if needed, Barnes said.

Even some Cheyenne Police Department vehicles got stuck in the snow this weekend.

CPD spokesperson Alex Farkas said police have been using armored vehicles and bomb squads truck to respond to incidents, as well as partnering with civilians for the use of snowmobiles.

Data about snowstorm-related incidents was not available as of Monday, Farkas said.

The closures have stranded truckers and postal workers, who cannot deliver mail until road conditions are safe again.

Restoring power

Not only did the high winds cause problematic snow drifts on streets and highways, it also caused problems for power lines across the county. The storm started with an icy rain Saturday morning and was followed by a wet, heavy snow.

During the storm, wind gusts reached between 40 and 55 miles an hour, which tested power lines and caused the homes of a number of residents to go dark.

Between Black Hills and High West Energy, more than 6,500 residents lost power during the storm. Crews continued working through Monday to restore power to those customers, with dangerous road conditions still persisting.

Monday afternoon, High West Energy posted on Facebook, “The outages are spread out through our service territory, so getting to each one takes a little longer because the roads are in rough shape. For example, we're trying to respond to an outage west of Buford, but there is a snow plow stuck in the road blocking access.”

As crews tried to reach all the affected areas, the utility companies called in a little outside help. Both had residents with snowmobiles and tractors step up and take linemen around and make necessary fixes to get the power back on.

Black Hills Energy posted Monday: “Hazardous road conditions continue to slow progress. However, we would like to thank the generous individuals in the Cheyenne area who’ve been willing to provide snowmobile transportation for our workers today.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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