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Great Plains digging out after blizzard

Crews fight to restore power after a winter storm slammed the Dakotas, while authorities work to remove snow-stranded vehicles from an interstate highway after their occupants were rescued.
Image: Blizzard
Vehicles stuck in the snow littered roads across western South Dakota, including this street in Rapid City on Thursday.Seth A. McConnell / Rapid City Journal via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Crews fought mud and water Friday as they tried to restore power after a fierce storm spread a wintry mix across the Dakotas, while authorities worked to remove snow-stranded vehicles that littered an interstate highway hours after their occupants were rescued.

Blizzard warnings subsided, but thousands of customers in rural areas remained without power after freezing rain and high winds.

The Nodak Rural Electric Cooperative said it was trying to restore power to about 4,500 rural customers. Nodak President George Berg said that some areas got about 5 inches of rain, and that the freezing rain and winds toppled power lines and poles along a 40-mile path in five counties.

"Our biggest obstacle is not the snow, but all the mud and water," Berg said. One crew in northern Nelson County had to use a motorboat to reach a downed power pole submerged in water, he said.

North Dakota's deer hunting season opened Friday, and Steele County Sheriff Wayne Beckman worried some hunters could mistake power crews for deer. Hunters and farmers should also be cautious of downed power lines, he said.

"It's dangerous out there; those fully charged lines could come down and, 'zappo,'" he said.

Major North Dakota roads reopened Friday after blizzard conditions in the central and western parts of the state, but officials warned they were still icy and snow-covered.

In South Dakota, the Highway Patrol worked through the night to rescue people stranded in their vehicles on snow-clogged highways in the western part of the state. About 300 people had been helped by Friday morning, authorities told reporters.

Parts of Interstate 90 were reopened Friday, but it remained closed from Murdo in the central part of the state to Spearfish, close to the Wyoming line. Officials said there was no indication when it will open.

Murdo was so full of stranded travelers Friday evening that some were staying at the city auditorium, including Mark Vandersnick. He was on his way home after taking his wife to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where she remained to get treatment for leukemia.

"I need to get back to Rapid City to see my kids," ages 9, 13 and 15, Vandersnick said.

Tom Dravland, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, said he doubted all the stranded trucks, cars, campers and other vehicles could be removed from the western sections of Interstate 90 by Friday's end.

He said authorities hear from one truck driver who has been stranded east of Newell since Wednesday night. He has food and water and is doing well.

"He's just wondering when we're going to get there," Dravland said. "It's slow going."

There are no reports of anyone missing in the blizzard, and no fatalities have been reported.

The storm dropped at least 45 inches of snow near Deadwood, S.D., in the Black Hills. In southwestern South Dakota, 20-foot snowdrifts were reported on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In both Dakotas, dozens of schools, agencies, businesses and attractions, including Mount Rushmore National Memorial, had to close.

The storm also disrupted travel and electrical service for a time in Nebraska. About 4,500 customers were without power at the height of the storm, but most lights were back on by Friday morning, said Mark Becker, a spokesman for Nebraska Public Power District.

More than a foot of snow fell near the small town of Voltaire, in north-central North Dakota. The rural home of retirees Ursula and Donald Wunderlich was surrounded by 50-foot-tall spruce and pine trees heavy with snow and ice.

"Those branches are loaded with snow," Ursula Wunderlich said, "and if they break, they could really cause some whoop-de-do around here."