National Guard members distribute drinkable water to residents of Sharps Corner, a community in the Pine Ridge Reservation in S.D. in March 2019. Courtesy of Lt. Col. Anthony Deiss, South Dakota National Guard
Published June 22, 2019
U.S. Government Grants Tribal Request for Federal Disaster Declaration Two Months After Uncharacteristic Winter Storm Flooding on Pine Ridge Reservation
PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION — The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced yesterday that the White House has declared a major public assistance disaster for the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“We are grateful that FEMA has responded to our dire situation,” said Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner. “We are very much eager to use this aid to begin our path out of poverty. We find ourselves increasingly pummeled by unprecedented weather events, and now more than ever, it’s critical that the federal government partner with tribal nations and other vulnerable communities. There must be a timely response to these climate-related disasters.”
The Midwest is experiencing a record year for precipitation in 2019, and Pine Ridge has already been hit especially hard by two “bomb cyclones” — severe weather systems which brought massive flooding to the rural reservation.
In mid-March, Winter Storm Ulmer wrought more than $10 million in devastation to Pine Ridge. Two weeks later, Winter Storm Wesley followed in Ulmer’s wake, increasing damages and delaying flood relief efforts across the reservation’s near 3,500-square-mile expanse, an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have suffered from lack of safe drinking water.
Bear Runner said that his government requested the public assistance disaster declaration — which provides aid specifically to repair damage to roads, water systems, bridges, culverts, public housing and other publicly shared infrastructure — several weeks ago.
The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council chose to appeal directly to FEMA for public assistance disaster relief rather than joining with the State of South Dakota, which recently received a similar disaster declaration from the White House.
Chase Iron Eyes, public relations director for President Bear Runner, explained that, if somewhat risky, the decision to go it alone was also important. “Seeking this declaration is an expression of the inherent sovereign status of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” Iron Eyes said. “And now we have crucial experience in navigating the logistics of the aid process.”
According to tribal officials, this is the first time FEMA has granted a federal disaster declaration directly to the Oglala Sioux Tribe indepedent of the State of South Dakota.
“Our government has spent hundreds of thousands of scarce dollars in recent weeks to professionalize our emergency and disaster response,” Iron Eyes continued. “We hired FEMA experts, grant writers, tradesmen, and other skilled laborers to increase the chance of a positive outcome in our appeal for federal support. FEMA neglected our tribal nation last year when a devastating hail storm hit in July. We are pleased that now we’ll be able to fund adequate repairs for the shared benefit of all our people.”
The public assistance declaration follows on the heels of FEMA’s individual assistance declaration for the State of South Dakota on June 8. That declaration, which included Pine Ridge, is providing funds only to repair private property.
FEMA has established a disaster recovery center in Pine Ridge, which has processed more than 300 registrations by private home and property owners for individual assistance. Tribal officials said they expect that number to grow to approximately 1,500 claims.
“We have much to do,” Bear Runner said. “I’m looking forward to making sure that every family in every one of our communities comes out of this emergency with every opportunity for an improved quality of life.”