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Winter Storm Pounds Northwest Montana, More Snow Coming

Snow will once again return to the area Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning across central Idaho and from the Mission Valley southward across western Montana.
National Weather Service Missoula
Snow will once again return to the area Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning across central Idaho and from the Mission Valley southward across western Montana.

National Weather Service meteorologists warned us about a big winter event and boy were they right. As promised, a gigantic winter storm barreled headlong into northwest Montana and left a ton of snow in its wake:

"Most people saw about two feet of snow in northwest Montana," says National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Kitsmiller. "Specific places: Martin City; 36 inches of snow over the weekend, Eureka; 30 inches, Libby; 32 inches. Kalispell, specifically had right around 19 inches. Their total wasn’t quite as high as it could have been because they had so much wind. It was blowing all around and hard to measure overnight.

"It looks like this one's at least right there with – there was a three day event in 1996, in December, and it looks like there was another one in 1986. So yeah, it’s definitely one of those. It looks like it could be a 20-year event right now," Says Kitsmiller

The Montana Department of Transportation closed U.S. Highway 2 between West Glacier and East Glacier due to blizzard conditions.

MDOT Maintenance Chief for the agency’s Kalispell division, Justun Juelfs was working on that very stretch of road when he spoke with us Monday afternoon:
"We've had some blowing and drifting that's actually drifting clear across the road. We're blowing snow on either end of that, attempting to get things back open."

Juelfs says crews are having a tough time keeping up with what Mother Nature's doled out over the past few days. He adds they’re using every break in the storm to their advantage:

"We only have so many resources and when the conditions are that bad there's nothing special about our trucks. Our snowplow operators can't see through those really dense whiteout conditions either. That puts us behind the eightball a little bit. That's why we're really trying to take advantage of the window that we have right now, and get this thing back open," says Juelfs.

The Flathead Beacon reports at least one avalanche had blocked the BNSF railway line over Marias Pass delaying freight and passenger trains. Empire Builder trains were stopped at Whitefish and Shelby. Each carried about 90 passengers. Amtrak could not bus passengers around the blocked line because the highway was also closed.

Until Monday, the Flathead School District hadn’t had one single snow day this winter. But Superintendent Jack Eggensperger says the first one was a real doozy:

"Every school in the county – well no, the two Montessori schools ended up – as far as I know – just running two hours late. But everything else was closed."

That means roughly 10,000 students got the day off. Eggensperger says the snow wasn’t really even the issue. It rained Sunday afternoon, then it got really cold, really fast:

"And so the streets [were] just a sheet of ice. There's some snow on top of it, but the streets, just treacherous."

At the time of this recording, Superintendent Eggensperger says he had not heard anything about another snow day planned for Tuesday.

No doubt some of the Flathead students who had Monday off were up at Whitefish Mountain Resort, where spokeswoman Riley Polumbus describes conditions as the stuff skiers and snowboarders dream of:

"We got 14 inches in 24 hours and that's been on top of the other great stuff. We’ve had a total of 29-inches in the last 72-hours. We’re wallowing in it right now," Polumbus says.

As northwest Montana was dealing with – or reveling in – this winter blast, depending on your perspective, west central Montana was on day two of unseasonably mild temperatures. That led to a major meltdown of record amounts of snow already on the ground. It was a sloppy mess and raised concerns of minor flooding.

Adriane Beck is Missoula County’s Director of Emergency Management:
"In the event that you are in an area where there are drains in the streets make sure those are clear of ice and that to the extent that you can, cut a channel for water to make its way to those drains to prevent ponding or pooling on streets so that cars can still pass through those."

Beck adds it’s a good idea to also drain meltwater away from your home to avoid flooding in your crawlspace or basement.

That, however, may not be an immediate concern this week. Weather forecasters say cold temperatures will move back into west central Montana Monday evening, possibly freezing all that meltwater, leading to yet another round of slick and dangerous conditions just in time for the Tuesday morning commute.

Old Man Winter's not done with us yet. Not by a long shot.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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