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Emerging from week of blizzard, South Dakota tribes brace for deep freeze

Already running low on supplies and thin on emergency management infrastructure, temperatures as low as minus-55 wind chill will hit several South Dakota tribes especially hard.

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Wind chills across the central and western portions of South Dakota will be reaching almost unthinkable lows beginning the night of Dec. 21.
Contributed / National Weather Service Rapid City
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Just as several tribes in South Dakota emerge from the heavy snow of the previous week, a bitter cold front is set to sweep across the state, bringing wind chills as low as 55 below zero on Dec. 21 and 22, threatening to further stretch already-taxed resources.

Kansas Middletent, a member of the Lower Brule tribe, told Forum News Service on Dec. 20 that, even after the ability to travel was restored by tribal services and the help of some regional partners over the weekend, problems of access to basic resources are not going away.

“Even now, after the storm, when the store was able to open and whatnot, literally everything in our store was completely gone one day later,” Middletent said.

Getting to better-stocked grocery stores would require driving to Chamberlain or Pierre, a dangerous trek on still-icy roads.

That reality is matched on several other reservations in the state, including the Cheyenne River Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Oglala Sioux and Crow Creek. Potentially taking the situation from bad to worse are heavy winds forecast for much of Wednesday, Dec. 21 through Friday, Dec. 23 — which can undo some of the progress of snow removal and make travel difficult — and wind chills hovering around 50 below in much of Western South Dakota.

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Those temperatures can quickly turn a lack of power, propane or firewood deadly.

Among the hardest hit tribal areas in the state are the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Rosebud Sioux Tribe in the southwestern and southern parts of the state, where monstrous snow drifts, strong winds and extreme cold are testing the tribe’s emergency management systems.

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Strong winds have already caused infrastructure damage on the Oglala Sioux reservation, including downing power lines in this photo from Dec. 16.
Facebook / OST Emergency Management

In a Dec. 20 update posted to the tribe’s Facebook page, President Frank Star Comes Out painted a picture of the issues that come along with the extended state of winter weather emergency on the reservation.

“Multiple pieces of heavy equipment are currently down or need minor repairs to get back up and running… Today will be day 8 for most of these operators working well over 18 hour days for some. Injuries and exhaustion are a huge concern. We have reports of injuries that are documented,” he wrote. “Propane services at Lakota Plains are back up and running but have run [out of] propane. Will update this morning to see if supply will be restored ASAP…Supply in our local stores have been an issue and seeing a lag to get supplies back in. Basic grocery items are in high demand.”

Similar issues are present on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, where five weather-related deaths have already been announced. In addition to food donations from Feeding South Dakota, hundreds of South Dakotans have sent a total of nearly $15,000 as of press time to a fundraiser organized by the Sicangu Community Development Corporation, a local organization focused on “addressing the systemic issues in our food, housing, health, and education systems.”

“According to Tribal government officials, lives have already been lost, and hundreds of families are without heat and are dealing with frozen pipes after below zero temperatures…We are mobilizing our staff to support our community members and need your help,” the organizers wrote. “Your donation will allow us to purchase and distribute wood to families who need to heat their homes.”

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe itself has also posted a donation link to support emergency efforts.

Federal actors are beginning to take notice. The Bureau of Indian Affairs told Forum News Service they have offered help throughout the past several days by providing the heavy machinery required to move the snow accumulations on several reservations. And, at their Wednesday, Dec. 21 briefing, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced several actions on the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux reservations.

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A summary of the actions planned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as of the morning of Dec. 21.
Contributed / Federal Emergency Management Agency

On Dec. 17, the Oglala Sioux Tribe used its statutory powers through the Stafford Act to call on President Joe Biden to declare a major weather disaster emergency on the Pine Ridge reservation, which would mobilize federal agencies and the National Guard to assist with snow removal and resource distribution. A declaration would also waive certain cost-sharing requirements and relieve financial stress on the tribe.

“These current blizzard conditions have caused closure of all BIA and tribal secondary roads on the reservation roads due to falling snow, high winds and snow drifts,” President Frank Star Comes Out wrote in the Dec. 17 declaration. “Such blizzard conditions pose an imminent threat to tribal governmental operations (i.e, tribal officials and employees are unable to report to work), to public safety and health of tribal members who currently do not have limited access to medical care, such as dialysis, ambulance service for crisis intervention medical care such as heart attacks and delivering babies, and private transportation to secure food and other necessities of life.”

While no emergency declaration has been issued by the federal government in response to tribal requests, which would potentially allow a FEMA response, the organization has taken preparatory actions. For example, FEMA is pre-positioning energy supplies for any potential outages on the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux reservations and is monitoring supply levels of food and water.

"We are engaged with both the Oglala Sioux Tribe and with Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and we are working with them to assess the unmet needs," Lynn Kimbrough, external affairs specialist with FEMA Region 8, which covers the Dakotas, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, told Forum News Service.

The state, for its part, has coordinated with several tribes on delivering basic resources and helping manage the ability to travel on major roads.

“In addition to clearing and maintaining the Interstates and state highways during this massive storm system, the South Dakota Department of Transportation was able to assist the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Rosebud Sioux Tribe with equipment and winter maintenance personnel,” said Joel Jundt, Secretary of Transportation. “Coordination of available DOT personnel and equipment resources, such as v-plows, tractors, blowers, and loaders, was organized by our Area Engineers.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, told Forum News Service in a statement he supports the use of tribal authority to call for emergency help from the federal government.

“The Stafford Act was amended to provide tribal governments the option to independently seek federal emergency assistance,” Rounds wrote in a statement. “We are here to help, recognizing tribal sovereignty but making our office available for whatever we can do to assist in responding to this emergency. “

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MORE BY JASON HARWARD

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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