Calm before the Storm: Pine Ridge Reservation Braces for Winter Blizzard

Calm before the storm on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Published April 10, 2019

PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION —  Still reelign from massive flooding and without federal assistance, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation braces for another major storm.

“A potentially historic storm will arrive late Wednesday, bringing a variety of precipitation types, strong wind gusts in excess of 50 mph, and very heavy snow totals,” the National Weather Service in Minneapolis warned. “Prepare now for a severe winter storm.”

As the storm, named Winter Storm Wesley, bears down, promising more severe weather for the home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, tribal leaders say the reservation has a long way to go to recover from flooding caused by Winter Storm Ulmer in mid-March.

That storm, they say, damaged more than 75 structures, displaced 1,500 individuals and destroyed critical culverts and roads, causing millions of dollars of damage to infrastructure.

In the wake of Ulmer, Pine Ridge President Julian Bear Runner joined the South Dakota State Senate in requesting a federal disaster declaration for South Dakota (SR-7), which would trigger quicker action by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Bear Runner is also seeking assistance from South Dakota’s leadership. Just over a week ago, he delivered a letter to Governor Kristi Noem requesting assistance from the South Dakota National Guard on recovery efforts and emergency response to future storms.

“The first storm created devastating impacts for our tribal nation,” Bear Runner said in a statement. “It is our great hope that going forward we will be able to work hand in hand, in a timely manner, with state and federal agencies to respond to the long-term challenge of recovery.”

Tribal officials have also been in direct communication with FEMA, but said the agency has only one tribal liaison for Region VIII, which includes all of South Dakota and five other states. They say that at least five other Sioux tribes in the region have suffered damage from Ulmer, with the most significant problems occurring on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Reservations.

Bear Runner said he is hoping that more people will sign onto his tribe’s petition to President Donald Trump spelling out the need for a federal disaster declaration similar to the one made for Nebraska several weeks ago.

Chase Iron Eyes, public relations director for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said that the relationship between worsening storm systems and climate change is not lost on the Bear Runner administration. He said his tribe’s young president is holding Washington accountable for negligence in regard to climate policy.

“Trump’s insistence on circumventing court decisions designed to reign in oil pipeline development on, or near, Sioux tribal land is particularly egregious given our current suffering,” said Iron Eyes. “Mr. Trump apparently has no respect for scientific or indigenous perspectives on what is causing these super storms, and he has no respect for the rule of law.”

On the heels of Ulmer, a Trump executive order attempted to circumvent a Montana court ruling blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, a project which would move 800,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil daily from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico across unceded Sioux treaty lands.

Steve Wilson, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s emergency response manager, said that, since taking his post in September of 2016, he’s experienced an increase in extremely unusual weather at Pine Ridge. “Last July, we saw baseball-sized hailstones and 60 to 80 mile-per-hour winds,” Wilson said. “And this current flooding is the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime. Weather patterns are changing.”

Iron Eyes said he was heartened to see Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, mention the situation at Pine Ridge in a recent national news appearance, and he echoed her stated concerns about FEMA’s failure to provide for communities of color in the aftermath of natural disasters under the Trump administration.

“Despite $10 million in damage caused to our homeland during the hailstorm last year, no support has been forthcoming from FEMA,” Iron Eyes said. “Now we face yet another weather catastrophe, and at least for the moment, we are once again largely without help.”

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