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Midwest Floods Lead to ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Water-logged and muddy lands are making it difficult for emergency aid to reach people in need of help

South Dakota National Guard distributes drinkable water at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (South Dakota National Guard)
smithsonian.com

Parts of the Midwest have been hit hard by devastating floods, which resulted in at least three deaths and caused more than $3 billion in damage to homes, infrastructure and agricultural lands. But on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the fallout from the flooding has escalated to a “humanitarian crisis,” reports Mitch Smith of the New York Times.

Residents of this vast territory, which is administered by the Oglala Sioux Tribe and is home to around 20,000 people, have been stranded for two weeks, due to water-logged and muddy lands that are preventing people from leaving the reservation and making it difficult for emergency aid to get in. According to Smith, parts of the region are only accessible by boat, helicopter or horse. The situation was exacerbated last week when water main breaks left 8,000 people without access to water, reports Sarah Mearhoff of Forum News Service.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem visited Pine Ridge on Saturday, and told Smith that she had quickly approved the reservation’s formal requests for help, once they were made. The state has dispatched ATVs, a boat rescue team and South Dakota National Guard troops to the area, along with four 2,500-gallon water tanks to ensure that Pine Ridge residents have access clean drinking water.

But some residents and officials have intimated that help came too slowly. “I know that requests [for assistance] were made early on,” Peri Pourier, South Dakota state representative for the district that encompasses Pine Ridge, tells NPR’s Dalia Mortada.

Though Pine Ridge was not the only area impacted by the floods, which were triggered by heavy rains and rapidly melting snow, the deluge has worsened already-difficult circumstances on the reservation. Pine Ridge is among the poorest regions of the country; according to data from the United States Census Bureau, some 43 percent of its residents live below poverty level. Alcoholism has been a pervasive problem on the reservation, and a 2017 study found that life expectancy in the Oglala Lakota County was lower than anywhere else in the United States.

Infrastructure on Pine Ridge has proved insufficient for dealing with the rising water levels that recently spilled over nearby creeks and rivers, turning the dirt roads that run through the area into impassable sludge. According to Mearhoff of Forum News Service, Pine Ridge has just three full-time employees on its emergency management team, which serves all of the 11,000-square-mile reservation. Julian Bear Runner, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s elected president, tells the Times’ Smith that the tribal government also does not have enough equipment to reach all the residents who need assistance.

“If we would have had state-of-the-art equipment, if we would have had adequate manpower, we could have gotten a lot done,” he says.

Speaking to Mearhoff, state representative Pourier says Pine Ridge and other struggling reservations are in urgent need of more funding from the federal government. “We’re in survival mode on a daily basis,” she explains. “When things like this happen, it’s devastating on all different levels.”

Water levels now appear to be declining at Pine Ridge, but the worst may not be over. According to NPR’s Mortada, the region’s temperatures are due to rise through midweek, which could melt persisting snow and lead to more flooding.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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