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Members of the Rapid City-Pennington County Water Rescue team work to help divert water flow away from a washout at the Oglala Dam in March 2019. Courtesy RCPC Water Rescue Team

Presidential emergency declared on Pine Ridge after severe springtime floods

PIERRE, S.D. — Three months after the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was first engulfed in catastrophic springtime floods, the White House has approved a presidential disaster declaration to provide federal emergency relief.

In a Friday, June 21 statement, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner said federal officials accepted the reservation's emergency request weeks after it was made. The tribe requested an emergency declaration separate from the state of South Dakota, whose $46 million request was accepted June 8.

Based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)'s preliminary damage assessments, spokesperson for Bear Runner Chase Iron Eyes said the reservation has likely sustained between $9 and $11 million in damages to public property, resources and housing.

Bear Runner said in Friday's release that the tribe is "grateful that FEMA has responded to our dire situation."

“We are very much eager to use this aid to begin our path out of poverty," he said. "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.”

In mid-March, Winter Storm Ulmer pummeled South Dakota with snow. Temperatures suddenly warmed and the snow melted rapidly, causing widespread flooding.

Residents on Pine Ridge were stranded in their homes surrounded by floodwaters, with emergency rescues and supply drop-offs conducted by boat. Eight thousand residents were left without clean drinking water after floodwaters washed out the rural water system, and Republican Gov. Kristi Noem deployed National Guard soldiers to deliver safe water.

The next month in April, Winter Storm Wesley brought more snow and severe weather, which the tribe said did further damage and delayed recovery from Ulmer.

Iron Eyes said in Friday's release that the tribe's decision to seek federal aid independent of South Dakota was a risk but was important as "an expression of the inherent sovereign status of the Oglala Sioux Tribe."

According to the release, Friday's declaration was the first time FEMA has granted a federal disaster declaration directly to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Pine Ridge was included in South Dakota's $3 million claim for individual private property damages.

South Dakota's Washington delegation on Friday released a statement in support of the disaster declaration, after sending a June 12 letter to the White House urging approval of the request. U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-SD, called the declaration "a good first step to get the Oglala Sioux Tribe the resources they so desperately need."

“I’m grateful that the administration listened to our request and acted quickly,” Senate Majority Leader and U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-SD, said. “The efforts of tribal leadership during this event have been very commendable. However, the extra funding the disaster declaration will provide to supplement clean up on top of all that has been lost during the storm is necessary to help this community.”

FEMA and state officials have established a disaster recovery center in Pine Ridge, where the tribe said more than 300 private property owners have requested individual assistance. The tribe said they anticipate that number to grow to 1,500 claims.

“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," Bear Runner said in the release.

Pine Ridge, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is located in the southwestern portion of South Dakota in an area larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

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