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Western SD counties hit by storm seek federal help

RAPID CITY (AP) — Western South Dakota counties affected by last weekend's snowstorm are seeking help from the federal government.

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Commissioners in the counties of Pennington, Meade, Lawrence and Butte all have declared disasters, the first step toward getting federal assistance. Requests must first go through the governor. It is unclear how the federal government shutdown might affect the aid process.

Pennington County Commission Chairman Lyndell Petersen said he is confident the region will get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "because of the amount of the snow and size of the area."

"It definitely fits the parameters that FEMA maintains," he told the Rapid City Journal.

The storm that began Friday and lingered through the weekend dumped up to 4 feet of snow in western South Dakota's Black Hills, cutting power to about 30,000 customers, killing tens of thousands of cattle, damaging numerous buildings, bringing travel to a standstill and shutting down schools.

Schools in Rapid City were reopening Wednesday. Crews were still working to restore power to several thousand customers. The South Dakota wing of the Civil Air Patrol has been flying three airplanes over the western part of the state to locate livestock killed by the storm. The state Department of Public Safety asked the patrol to identify and photograph areas where dead livestock are obstructing state highways or are in road ditches.

Some western South Dakota ranchers have said half of their cattle or more had died. The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association estimates that at least 5 percent of the cattle in the region might have died.

Ranchers and industry officials have said the losses are aggravated by the fact that a government disaster program to help ranchers recover from livestock losses has expired, and ranchers won't be able to get federal help until Congress passes a new farm bill.

Petersen told KOTA-TV that Pennington County is trying to help ranchers dispose of carcasses.

"Our unofficial goal at this point is to establish collection points and then to coordinate with rendering companies that may involve themselves in gathering and collecting those bodies," he said.

Crews also are working to clear thousands of fallen trees from county roads.

"If we don't get those trees out in a couple of weeks and they freeze, they're going to be there all winter," Pennington County Highway Superintendent Heine Junge told the Journal.