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Lowe: Governor’s October blizzard response showed weak leadership

Joe Lowe, a Democrat who wants to run against Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, says the governor’s response to the early October blizzard in western South Dakota showed a lack of leadership.

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“I don’t think he really grasped the magnitude of what happened,” Lowe said in an interview this week with The Daily Republic.

The blizzard walloped much of western South Dakota with rain, strong winds and as much as 4 feet of damp, heavy snow. The ferocity of the storm took many farmers and ranchers by surprise, resulting in livestock losses estimated at more than 43,000.

Lowe ridiculed the governor’s decision not to open South Dakota’s Emergency Operations Center, which is located in Pierre, to provide assistance and coordinate the efforts of those counties dealing with the storm and its aftermath.

Lowe has experience in emergency management, having served for seven years as commander of one of only a handful of incident management teams in the U.S. that respond to disasters on state and national levels. Lowe also served as South Dakota’s Wildland Fire Division Director for 11 years.

“I have no idea why the Emergency Operations Center wasn’t opened,” Lowe said. “I think it was just a bad decision.”

Tony Venhuizen, the governor’s director of policy and communications, said if local governments or state agencies are equipped to respond to an incident — which he claimed was the case during the blizzard — the state’s Emergency Operations Center does not need to be opened.

“The Black Hills counties are very experienced and well-equipped for winter storm response,” Venhuizen said in an email sent this week to The Daily Republic. “Their local entities coordinated their efforts.”

Daugaard’s response to the storm was reactionary, not proactive as it should have been, Lowe said.

“The governor should have been more prepared and advised the public about the potential impact of the storm,” he said.

Venhuizen pointed out that the state Department of Transportation moved snow removal equipment from other parts of the state to the Black Hills region before the blizzard hit in order to speed up snow removal.

The state’s response to the blizzard was coordinated from the state Department of Public Safety building in Pierre, with state agencies acting in a variety of capacities, including coordinating road closures and snow removal, Venhuizen said.

The South Dakota National Guard was also deployed to assist in the wake of the storm, he added. Once the storm’s catastrophic impact on livestock became clear, the state Department of Agriculture helped coordinate relief efforts in that respect, Venhuizen said.

Lowe claimed the state’s plan to remove the carcasses of livestock that died in the storm was implemented too slowly.

“How bad would it be if your very livelihood was dead in front of you and you had to watch it for days?” he said. “How much more painful could that have ever been?”

Lowe criticized a statement Daugaard made last month to The Rapid City Journal, in which he said the state’s response to the blizzard was “very, very good.”

“Our citizens deserve better,” Lowe said. “We can’t say this was a ‘very, very good’ response to a winter storm.”

Lowe, who announced his candidacy in December, has a bachelor’s degree in public administration. He and his wife, Wendy, have two grown children and own a business in Rapid City.

Lowe and State Rep. Susan Wismer, D-Britton, are the only two Democrats to announce their candidacy for governor.