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Storm Atlas pushed former firefighter to challenge gov

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Editor's note: This is the second of two profiles on the Democratic candidates running in the June 3 primary. There will also be two profiles of the Republican candidates running in the primary.

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Retired wildfire expert and photographer Joe Lowe knows how to handle disasters.

Now 68 years old, Lowe moved to South Dakota after more than two decades of firefighting work in southern California to lead the state's newly created Division of Wildland Fire Suppression in 2001 at the behest of then-Gov. Bill Janklow. During his tenure, the Black Hills region experienced some of its biggest fires, including 2002's Battle Creek Fire, which burned 13,700 acres over 13 days. The state also enjoyed quiet fire years before Lowe retired in January 2012.

He wrote national curriculum on command and control of large-scale disasters for the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Saying he's seen state government from the inside and understands its operations, Lowe said the administration of Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard should have been much more proactive ahead of the devastating blizzard that hit western South Dakota hard in early October 2014.

"I didn't like his response to the winter storm. It's real simple," said Lowe, a Democrat who is seeking his party's nomination in a June 3 primary. "This governor never had a cabinet meeting, not until the Monday after the storm."

Lowe contends that Daugaard should have assembled his cabinet and opened the state Emergency Operations Center before the storm hit because, he said, National Weather Service staff in Rapid City predicted the size and impact of the storm the Wednesday night before Storm Atlas hit on Friday, Oct. 4.

"The importance of the Emergency Operations Center cannot be overstated," Lowe said. "When counties become maxed out for capacity, they are trying to do two things -- run the incident and order additional resources. The EOC kicks it up one level where the state finds the resources to run the incident. We had 14 counties and two reservations with disaster declarations.

"In comparison, take the ice storm in Sioux Falls two years prior. That crippled Sioux Falls but there was not as much catastrophic damage. He opened the state EOC and we saw a full-court press from the state," Lowe said.

After Storm Atlas killed more than 40,000 cattle and did other damage, Daugaard waited to tour the area until the following Thursday, a time lapse Lowe calls unacceptable.

"This being the worst storm in 40 years, he should have been out there talking to the people who had significant losses," Lowe said.

Lowe, who holds a degree in public administration, lives in Piedmont with his wife, Wendy, and operates a photography studio in Rapid City. They have two grown children, Amy and Ryan.

Besides his firefighting and disaster experience, Lowe served as mayor of Mission Viejo, Calif., in 1995, and also served on the town's city council. The city had a population of about 100,000, a budget of $47.8 million and a AAA bond rating, he said.

In addition to disaster response, Lowe is running on more traditional Democratic issues including his desire for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare and South Dakota's last-place ranking for teacher pay.

"That stuff is just mean-spirited," he said of Republican leaders declining to expand Medicaid or raise teacher pay.

Economic development, too, is on his radar screen, as he favors the National Governor's Association's top trends for business development. He would promote development of transportation corridors and the training of more tradespeople, such as welders, to meet the needs of industry. And, Lowe said, he would focus on growing existing businesses rather than recruiting new ones.

"Bringing jobs from out of state amounts to just 2 percent of job gains nationwide," Lowe said.

Lowe faces state Rep. Susan Wismer, D-Britton in the June 3 primary election. The winner will face the winner of the Republican primary race between Gov. Daugaard and former state Rep. Lora Hubbel, R-Sioux Falls.

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