By Chet Brokaw
PIERRE (AP) - A record-breaking storm that dumped 4 feet of snow in parts of western South Dakota left ranchers dealing with heavy losses, in some cases perhaps up to half their herds, as they assess how many of their cattle died during the unseasonably early blizzard.
Meanwhile, utility companies were working to restore power to tens of thousands of people still without electricity Monday after the weekend storm that was part of a powerful weather system that also buried parts of Wyoming and Colorado with snow and produced 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.
Gary Cammack, who ranches on the prairie near Union Center about 40 miles northeast of the Black Hills, said he lost about 70 cows and some calves, about 15 percent of his herd. A calf would normally sell for $1,000, while a mature cow would bring $1,500 or more, he said.
"It's bad. It's really bad. I'm the eternal optimist and this is really bad," Cammack said. "The livestock loss is just catastrophic. ... It's pretty unbelievable."
Cammack said cattle were soaked by 12 hours of rain early in the storm, so many were unable to survive an additional 48 hours of snow and winds up to 60 mph.
"It's the worst early season snowstorm I've seen in my lifetime," said Cammack, 60.
Early estimates suggest western South Dakota lost at least 5 percent of its cattle, said Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. Some individual ranchers reported losses of 20 percent to 50 percent of their livestock, Christen said. The storm killed calves that were due to be sold soon as well as cows that would produce next year's calves in an area where livestock production is a big part of the economy, she said.
"This is, from an economic standpoint, something we're going to feel for a couple of years," Christen said.
Some ranchers still aren't sure how many animals they lost, because they haven't been able to track down all of their cattle. Snowdrifts covered fences, allowing cattle to leave their pastures and drift for miles.
"Some cattle might be flat buried in a snow bank someplace," said Shane Kolb of Meadow, who lost only one cow.
State officials are tallying livestock losses, but the extent won't be known for several days until ranchers locate their cattle, Jamie Crew of the state Agriculture Department said.
Ranchers and officials said the losses were aggravated by the fact that a government disaster program to help ranchers recover from livestock losses has expired. Ranchers won't be able to get federal help until Congress passes a new farm bill, said Perry Plumart, a spokesman for Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
Meanwhile, more than 22,000 homes and businesses in western South Dakota remained without power Monday afternoon, according to utility companies. National Guard troops were helping utility crews pull equipment through the heavy, wet snow to install new electricity poles.
At least 1,600 poles were toppled in the northwest part of the state alone, and workers expect to find more, 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.
In Rapid City, where a record-breaking 23 inches of snow fell, travel was slowly getting back to normal.
The city's 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. Schools and many public offices were closed.
"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.
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.