Residents in central South Dakota have dealt with some serious weather in 2019.
And emergency managers in the region are dealing with long hours and many miles on the road as they handle the fallout from the spring and summer storms and the one that rolled through the region in September. Earlier this week, the President Donald Trump approved the third presidential disaster declaration for South Dakota in 2019.
Recently, the flooding washed out roads, broke through dams, overwhelmed city sewer systems and put local residents at risk for injury or worse. And county emergency managers throughout the area were there to respond and coordinate recovery efforts wherever and whenever.
B.J. Stiefvater is one of the emergency managers who serve South Dakota’s 66 counties. The emergency manager for McCook County, he started in that position in April, but he has a much longer connection with the office. His father, Brad Stiefvater, Sr., held the same position for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2019. B.J. Stiefvater had served as deputy emergency manager for the county for eight years before taking over for his dad, so the demanding nature of the job was not unfamiliar to him.
And while he learned a great deal watching his dad over the years -- including his response to the Spencer tornado in 1999 and other natural disasters -- he said he hasn’t seen anything like what the weather has done in 2019.
“The thing about this year is it just hasn’t stopped. Nothing has stopped. You look back at history and disasters are not that uncommon, but it’s not common to have so many in such a short period of time,” Stiefvater said. “If it’s a flood, you deal with it, and then it’s another two or three years until the next one. So there is a little time. This year, it’s been one after another, and things keep coming up that you have to address.”
Stiefvater said for an event like the heavy rains and flooding that came in September, it’s about preparedness and keeping people safe first and foremost.
“It’s always (protecting) life, property and then the environment. We make sure everyone is safe through the storm event. After that it transitions to what we need to do,” Stiefvater said. “It could be reporting as far damage to buildings.”
Assessing that damage means heading out on the road to view conditions first-hand. Stiefvater keeps track of his mileage and said he had driven more than 2,000 miles for emergency management work since Sept. 9. He said that distance encompasses a loop he usually drives to assess damage at places like Lake Vermillion and communities in the county, like Salem, Bridgewater and Canistota.
The position is considered full-time in McCook County, he said, but he also works to lead the McCook County Ambulance service, another position he took over from his father. He is generally used to the unpredictability and odd hours of the job, even if years like 2019 are memorable.
“The public expects you to be taking care of problems,” Stiefvater said.
Sanborn County has also had a rough go of it in 2019. The county has been part of three disaster declarations this year, something Jason Coenen, emergency manager for the county, said was unique in his experience during his time in the position there and previously in Clark County.
“This is the most I’ve ever done in one year with emergency management," Coenen said. "Even going through blizzards and things like that, this is the most disasters I’ve ever had to go through in a single year."
Coenen, who previously worked as an emergency manager in Clark County and as a co-emergency manager in Sanborn County, is also chief deputy with the Sanborn Sheriff’s Office. It’s a job that has allowed him to understand the long hours of dealing with the emergency management position. His colleagues also pitch in to help whenever possible, he said.
“I’ve been doing it enough that I’m used to the hours," Coenen said. "We’re a small sheriff’s office here, so we do what we can. If I start getting really busy with something I can lean on the other (sheriff’s office) staff."
Hours must be logged before a disaster even hits. Prior to storm season, Coenen said he meets with township officials for a refresher on procedure when it comes to disaster response.
“We have an annual meeting with township officials and I suggest things, tell them to record damages if the roads are getting washed out, whether we’re going to go into a disaster declaration,” Coenen said. “Just be ahead of the game.”
Since he travels the county regularly as a deputy, he combines his duties with his responsibilities in emergency management, taking photos of washed out roads and generally evaluating the state of affairs following events like the September storms.
Coenen is thankful for the experience he has when dealing with a year like this one. Even for a seasoned emergency manager, dealing with flooding like what took place this year can be challenging.
“I can’t imagine it for someone who has no experience, or their first or second year. They would be totally lost, because they don’t know how things need to be,” Coenen said.
Hutchinson County has also been hard hit by flooding this year. Rains caused rising waters at Wolf Creek Colony and forced dozens of families to relocate, and bridges and roads that had been rebuilt after previous floods were washed out again. Dave Hoffman, emergency manager for the county since 2006, said 2019 has been as busy as any year he can remember.
“For this last episode in September, my two-week pay period was for 122 hours,” Hoffman said. “Some days you get a call every day. Where does it start and where does it end?”
Hoffman said the townships and county are doing well addressing their problems given the circumstances this year, which helps take some pressure off him, but there are still stacks of paperwork and other tasks that must be completed as part of his job.
Hoffman, who will be turning 70 years old soon, operates a farm consulting business as his day job and also serves as the mayor of Parkston. Coupled with his emergency management duties, he admits the days can get a little long, but he understands that it’s all part of a necessary public service.
He said he’s on the job for the good and safety of Hutchinson County residents for now. But somewhere down the road, he’ll relish a break from the demands of the position. He noted a friend had reminded him recently just how busy a summer it’s been.
“We haven’t fished at all this summer,” Hoffman said.