Rush to cash checks collapses floor of reservation bankThe floor of the Wells Fargo bank in Lower Brule dropped 2 feet Tuesday morning as tribal members rushed to cash trust settlement checks. No one was injured, but the bank is closed indefinitely.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
LOWER BRULE — They broke the bank at Lower Brule.
The floor of the Wells Fargo bank dropped 2 feet Tuesday morning as tribal members rushed to cash trust settlement checks. No one was injured, but the bank is closed indefinitely.
“If you knew the number of people packed into a very small building …” said Lower Brule Chairman Mike Jandreau.
On Tuesday, the Lower Brule Tribe started issuing $750 checks to about 3,800 members as part of a settlement with the federal government over the abuse and mishandling of tribal assets over the past several decades.
The Crow Creek Tribe, based in nearby Fort Thompson, started cutting $800 checks to about 4,000 tribal members Monday.
That’s more than $6 million in checks, and people were in a hurry to cash them. Many members of both tribes used the Lower Brule bank before the floor collapsed.
Marcia Surdez, 50, of Lower Brule, was trapped inside the small building, which does not have a basement. It was very crowded, Surdez said.
“Oh, geez, it had to have at least 40 people in it,” she said.
Surdez is in a wheelchair after losing both her lower legs to MRSA, a staph infection. She was in the center of the bank, waiting in line for one of the two tellers, when the floor began to rumble.
“All of a sudden, there was a crack,” she said. “You could hear the nails popping. It was like gunfire.
“I’m in my chair, and I start to panic. All of a sudden the whole floor went down. The floor just dropped.”
She said people were told not to panic, and to exit the building slowly. It was a frightening experience for her.
“You could hear every nail come out of the wood,” Surdez said. “The whole building shook like an earthquake.”
Lower Brule BIA Superintendent James Two Bulls said the floor just gave way.
“Too many people standing in one place,” Two Bulls said. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do.”
The tribal casino was not cashing checks, and no other businesses in town could afford to do so, Jandreau said. He said the Wells Fargo bank in Chamberlain will probably get a lot of the business, and a banker said Wednesday morning said they have been busy this week.
Surdez said she was still waiting to cash her check. She said with her disability, she will need help getting to an out-of-town bank.
On Wednesday afternoon, tribal members stopped at both headquarters to pick up checks.
Jandreau and a Crow Creek official both said the checks were purposely cut this time of year to help provide a merrier Christmas for their members.
“This time is typically a very difficult time for our people,” Jandreau said.
Lower Brule is issuing about $2.85 million in checks, while Crow Creek is distributing around $3.2 million.
The money came from settlements reached with the tribal governments over assets, such as land, timber and other material, that was owned by the tribes, Jandreau said.
Tribal members have also received about $1,000 each as part of another settlement for individually owned assets, he said.
Jandreau, who has been the tribal chairman for 34 years, said a bank will relocate at that location.
“We’re looking likely at a more substantial building,” he said.
Jandreau said it is “vitally important” for the tribe to have a bank in Lower Brule, a small, isolated town in central South Dakota.
“We really need it,” he said. “We do a very substantial amount of business with Wells Fargo.”
Jandreau said the building was manufactured as a bank and served Norwest in Pierre for about five years before the tribe bought it in the mid-1990s and moved it to Lower Brule.
Norwest has since become Wells Fargo. The company handles accounts for both tribes, and the checks to members of both tribes were written on that bank.
Jandreau had not visited the bank, but said it appears to have been an accident that was caused by overuse that no one could have predicted.
He said the bank floor was apparently weakened Monday when numerous Crow Creek tribal members cashed checks there. When Lower Brule members crowded inside on Tuesday, the floor just gave way.
The tribe has contacted its insurer to examine the building, which has been boarded up with large sheets of plywood. Yellow police tape encircles the building.
Jandreau said the tribe and its residents will have to use banks in Chamberlain and Pierre until a bank resumes service in Lower Brule.