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FEMA teams surveying blizzard, flood damage West River

Eric Allen, a FEMA public assistance specialist from Denver, documents damage along a bike path in Rapid City, on Tuesday caused by an Oct. 4 blizzard. 14 FEMA teams are visiting 15 counties and two American Indian reservations and expect to complete their initial damage assessment by Thursday which is necessary for a presidential disaster declaration and federal aid. (AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Chris Huber)

RAPID CITY (AP) — Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are documenting the damage caused by an Oct. 4 blizzard in western South Dakota.

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The storm dumped up to 4 feet of snow in the region, cut power to about 30,000 customers, killed tens of thousands of cattle, and damaged or destroyed buildings, trees and electrical system infrastructure.

Starting this week, 14 FEMA teams are visiting 15 counties and two American Indian reservations where public infrastructure and nonprofit entities suffered damage, according to the Rapid City Journal. Damage from post-storm flooding is also being assessed.

Teams are visiting each of the rural electric cooperatives where snow and winds shattered power poles and downed lines. Others are working with municipal, county or tribal governments to evaluate damage and storm-related costs.

The damage assessment is necessary for a presidential disaster declaration, paving the way for federal aid.

"This is not a final review, this is really just to get a sense of the impact," said Brian Hvinden, an external affairs specialist with FEMA.

The teams expect to complete by Thursday their initial assessment that will be forwarded to the state Office of Emergency Management in Pierre. The state makes the final decision on asking for a disaster declaration, Hvinden said.

The primary consideration for FEMA aid is whether the costs and damages exceed the ability of state and local governments to respond to the disaster, FEMA spokesman Phil Wernisch said. If South Dakota receives a federal disaster declaration, federal funds will cover 75 percent of the costs associated with the storm. The remaining 25 percent must come from state and local governments.

Separately, the Rapid City School Board has approved adding three days to the school year to make up for time students missed due to the blizzard. The extension means the academic year for Rapid City students will stretch beyond Memorial Day, to Wednesday, May 28. Teachers will work one more day after that.

The storm dumped nearly 2 feet of snow on the city of 68,000, damaging schools, making roads impassable and causing power outages. It damaged or destroyed thousands of trees.

Rapid City has spent nearly half a million dollars in the first week of a curbside pickup program for yard debris. Crews are working seven days a week, and the operation is expected to continue until Christmas, Rapid City Public Works Director Terry Wolterstorff said.

"FEMA would not reimburse us for picking up curbside the branches on private roads," Wolterstorff told KEVN-TV. "We're still going to pick those branches up; we believe that's a service we need to provide to those customers."