Early snow leaves thousands without power

A record-breaking storm that dumped 4 feet of snow in parts of western South Dakota left tens of thousands of people without electricity on Monday and ranchers bracing for heavy losses as they assess how many of their cattle died during the unseasonably early blizzard.

The weekend storm was part of a powerful weather system that also buried parts of Wyoming and Colorado with snow, and spawned destructive tornadoes in Nebraska and Iowa. At least four deaths were attributed to the weather, including a South Dakota man who collapsed while cleaning snow off his roof.

Cattle ranchers throughout western South Dakota were reporting losing between 20 percent and 50 percent of their herds, and early estimates suggest the region may have lost 5 percent or more of its cattle, said Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.

Christen said the storm not only killed calves that were due to be sold soon, but also cows that would produce next year’s calves.

“This is from an economic standpoint something we’re going to feel for a couple of years,” Christen said.

National Guard troops were helping utility crews pull equipment through the heavy, wet snow to install new electricity poles in western South Dakota, where more than 22,000 homes and businesses remained without power Monday afternoon, according to utility companies.

At least 1,600 poles were toppled in the northwest part of the state alone, and workers are expecting to find more as they make their way into rural prairie areas, Grand River Electric Coop spokeswoman Tally Seim said.

“We’ve got guys flying over our territory, counting as they go. We’re finding more as we are able to access the roads. The roads have been pretty blocked on these rural country roads,” Seim said.

“One of our biggest challenges is getting access to areas that are still snowed in,” added Vance Crocker, vice president of operations for Black Hills Power, whose crews were being hampered by rugged terrain in the Black Hills region. “Safety is our No. 1 concern for both our customers and employees working in this treacherous terrain.”

In Rapid City, where a record-breaking 23 inches of snow fell, travel was slowly getting back to normal.

The Rapid City airport and all major roadways in the region had reopened by Monday. The city’s streets also were being cleared, but residents were being asked to stay home so crews could clear downed power lines and tree branches, and snow from roadsides.

“It’s a pretty day outside. There’s a lot of debris, but we’re working to clear that debris,” said Calen Maningas, a Rapid City firefighter working in the Pennington County Emergency Operations Center.

Still, schools across the region were closed, along with many public offices.

Cleanup also continued after nine tornadoes hit northeast Nebraska and northwest Iowa on Friday, injuring at least 15 people and destroying several homes and businesses. Authorities also are blaming the weather for a car accident that killed three people along a slick, snow-covered road in Nebraska.

In South Dakota, the 19 inches of snow that fell in Rapid City on Friday broke the city’s 94-year-old one-day snowfall record for October by about 9 inches, according to the National Weather Service. The city also set a record for snowfall in October, with a total of 23.1 inches during the storm. The previous record was 15.1 inches in October 1919.

Temperatures in the Rapid City area were expected to warm into the 60s on Monday to continue melting the heavy snow, according to the National Weather Service.