Wayne Boyd, chief of staff to the president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, reflects on recent winter storms while helping with the storm response from his office on Dec. 27, 2022. (Joshua Haiar/SD Searchlight)
ROSEBUD RESERVATION — Rosebud tribal officials say at least six people have died as a result of two winter storms that partially buried homes across the reservation, and some people remain trapped at home more than two weeks after the first snow fell.
The fatalities included a 12-year-old boy with health problems who couldn’t be reached in time, an elderly man found bundled up in his home who’d frozen to death, and a man who froze to death in a ditch.
The deaths occurred both before and after a National Guard deployment ordered by Gov. Kristi Noem, which came six days after Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Scott Herman declared a state of emergency on the reservation in south-central South Dakota.
The tribe uses disaster declarations sparingly, and only after exhausting its own disaster management resources, said Herman, who called upon state officials to be more responsive to the tribe’s needs. The president said the tribe began to call for help through the state’s secretary of tribal relations, Dave Flute, before the official disaster declaration on Dec. 16.
“We’re serious when we ask for (help),” said Herman. “It took us two weeks to actually be able to get the assistance we needed.”
The South Dakota Office of Emergency Management sent two more highway-grade snowblowers on Wednesday morning, as the department and the National Guard additionally work to help residents of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge, which was also hit hard by the storm.
Part of the work for those blowers involves widening the pathways cleared earlier, to make space for propane deliveries. Over half of Rosebud’s households rely on the fuel for heat. Herman said he plans to ask his tribal council to pay for a three months’ supply of propane and pay residents’ electricity bills for the same amount of time as a way to relieve pressure on residents.
Some residents of Todd County, home of the tribe and one of the poorest counties in the nation, “are lucky if they can put $100 in the tank at a time,” said Wayne Boyd, a former tribal treasurer who now serves as Herman’s chief of staff.
The tribe is far from a place of planning for the next storm in earnest, though. The path-widening for propane deliveries will take place alongside continued road clearing. About 55% of the reservation’s roadways were clear as of Tuesday.
That figure frustrates Herman, who knows that residents are frustrated with him and growing more impatient by the day.
“Everyone should be out by now,” Herman said. “We can’t tell them to wait any longer.”
Early stumbles with contractors
The storm’s sheer breadth of coverage across the U.S. impeded the tribe’s ability to secure assistance from the nearby neighbors it typically relies upon when disasters strike.
The tribe reached out to contractors from nearby Valentine, Nebraska, but they were booked. They then reached as far out as Minneapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City to seek backup for the three loaders, two plows, six small front-end loaders and seven Bobcat snow-pushers its highway department has to clear 170 miles of paved tribal roadways.
“This thing that happened didn’t just happen here,” Boyd said.
The first loader the tribe was able to hire came by way of a contractor that arrived during the first storm, which began on Dec. 13.
“It was gone to another area within a day and a half,” Boyd said.
The next set of contractors broke a blade pushing through the 3 feet of heavy snow that first fell, which blew into drifts 10 feet tall or higher.
The tribe said it contracted for helicopters to air-drop supplies and rescue stranded residents, particularly those with medical needs.
That was important, tribal officials said, because so many people were stranded across the reservation under those enormous drifts and unable to access food, propane or wood for heat, or medicine.
The same poverty that keeps Rosebud residents from putting more than $100 in the tank is the reason some tribal members don’t keep more than three or four days’ worth of food on hand, Boyd said.
The helicopters were able to help many of those families, he said, including one woman and her six children in the tiny community of Corn Creek. They were without food or heat for three days, huddled together in one bedroom for warmth.
“We had to send two helicopters because they wouldn’t all fit in one,” Boyd said.
Others did not make it. Boyd explained the circumstances behind six fatalities known to the tribe as of Tuesday:
- An older man, stuck in a rural home with his daughter and granddaughter, had a heart attack during the first week of the storm. It took two and a half days to plow through to the home, Boyd said. His family was there with the body when crews arrived.
- The 12-year-old boy was running low on medicine and couldn’t get out of his house. He lived 3-4 miles from the city of Rosebud, Boyd said, and it took hours to get to him. He died in the hospital.
- A man in Antelope also died at a hospital from blood loss after a long wait for an ambulance ride.
- The family of an older man in White River called to report that he’d been passing out and had pneumonia symptoms. He refused to ride in the helicopter and waited for an ambulance. He died at the hospital, Boyd said.
- A homeless man’s body was found in a ditch, Boyd said.
- An older man who lived near Spring Creek froze to death with his coveralls on, Boyd said. The man’s family had been checking on him early on in the storm but lost contact for a day and a half.
Response continues, future storms considered
The command center for the tribal Emergency Preparedness Program (EPP) in Rosebud had propane, small heaters, food and water, diapers and other supplies to distribute to tribal members in need on Tuesday afternoon. The tribe bought all the supplies to respond to community needs, Herman said, with requests for assistance written on paper forms and placed under sheets of paper with labels like “food,” “furnace repairs,” “rescue” and “water breaks.”
The forms help guide the response to a storm whose effects continue to be felt across the reservation, said EPP Director Robert Oliver.
Much of the tribe’s communication moves through social media. The tribe began warning residents of a pending winter storm on its Facebook page on Dec. 9, and later began posting the phone numbers of emergency responders.
Rosebud tribal officials say at least six people have died as a result of two winter storms that partially buried homes across the reservation, and some people remain trapped at home more than two weeks after the first snow fell.
— South Dakota Searchlight (@SDSearchlight) December 29, 2022
Oliver and the rest of the EPP crew, which pulls in help from multiple tribal agencies, have been busy ever since.
Oliver hopes to see a digital aid in place by next winter. The plan is to gather information about each tribal household in the coming months – information on potentially vulnerable residents, the kind of heating fuel used and any other potential needs – and input the information into geographic information system software that would help guide emergency response.
The tribe began work on such a mapping system earlier this year, but a software crash rendered it unavailable long before the storm hit, Oliver said.
“If we have it back up, now we can start building those maps and everybody would have it on their phone,” Oliver said. “Then it wouldn’t be that tough getting to places. We will know where people live.”
The three-month propane tank refills Herman is proposing will be helpful this winter, the president said, but forward-looking steps like a GIS app are important in the face of more frequent weather extremes. The tribal council has heard multiple presentations on the impact of climate change, Herman said “and they’re telling us we need to worry.”
“We’ve noticed the change,” he said. “And we recognize that we need to prepare for these changes.”
If that means filling tanks in advance of the next major storm, Herman said, he expects the tribe will work to find a way to pay for that.
Funding questions loom
The tribe plans to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the costs incurred during the storm, but Chief of Staff Boyd said the tribe will not be able to recoup all its costs.
It’s taken emergency funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to keep the tribe afloat during the storm. The money could also help fund the purchase of new snow removal equipment.
That’s important, Boyd said, because the tribe gets $2.8 million in road funding from the federal government. Another $900,000 in fuel taxes from the state helps cover road work. The tribe’s total annual budget is around $9 million.
“That’s why we have a hard time with emergency management,” Boyd said. “We don’t have the resources.”
That’s why the tribe kept asking for help, Boyd said. Herman said he placed multiple calls with Tribal Relations Secretary Flute, as well as calls with Secretary Craig Price of the state Department of Public Safety and representatives with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the days leading up to Gov. Noem’s disaster declaration. Neither the governor’s spokesman, Ian Fury, nor Flute immediately responded to messages from South Dakota Searchlight.
The response following the governor’s declaration was welcome and appreciated, Herman said, but it came too late.
Initially, he said, “they paid us lip service.”
Herman said he plans to turn to the federal government first the next time help is needed.
Pine Ridge also waited for help
Troubles from the winter storms continue for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose reservation sits just across the Rosebud Reservation’s western border.
Officials in Pine Ridge reached out to several offices in the federal government for emergency assistance, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That request was made Dec. 18. Aid from FEMA did not arrive until Dec. 27, according to Donna Salomon with the tribal president’s office.
Snow removal, medical transport, and delivering medication, propane and food were top priorities for the tribal government, according to a Dec. 23 announcement.
President Frank Star Comes Out has since issued a water restriction order that will remain in place until Friday for some parts of the reservation, saying the tribe’s utility crews have been unable to get to get to all its stations and that certain areas have “low or no pressure.”
On Wednesday, the tribe issued a release on food box distributions at multiple locations that will continue for the next few days.
Salomon said the tribe had recorded no storm-related deaths as of Wednesday.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with new and corrected information pertaining to the circumstances of storm-related deaths, the source of helicopters and potential FEMA aid.
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