PIERRE, S.D. — Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has requested federal disaster relief and an emergency declaration to help rebuild communities after blizzards and floods wreaked havoc on the state in March and April.
According to a news release from her office, Noem on Wednesday, May 22, wrote a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to declare a presidential disaster and allocate Federal Emergency Management Agency resources to help repair approximately $46 million in damages assessed statewide.
During preliminary damage assessments conducted earlier this month, local and federal officials estimated about $43 million in storm-related damages to public property, individual homes and businesses across 58 counties and on three American Indian reservations. Approximately $3 million in individual assistance damages were assessed in 16 counties and on three reservations.
The Pine Ridge reservation, which was devastated by March's floods, was not included in Noem's request for public property damage assistance because the tribe is independently pursuing its own emergency declaration and FEMA request. Oglala Sioux tribe Public Relations Liaison Chase Iron Eyes said Pine Ridge's absence from Noem's request was unrelated to an ongoing conflict between Noem's office and the tribe on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Noem wrote in her letter that the aftermath of the storms continue to take a physical and emotional toll on residents, and that although “South Dakotans pride themselves on being a hardy group of citizens," federal assistance "will help individuals, businesses, and government inch closer to recovering from this disaster.”
South Dakota's congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, all Republicans — also wrote to the President on Wednesday, supporting Noem's request.
The congressmen said the state responded to the damage "with the resources immediately available to them," but the state's and FEMA's preliminary damage assessment "makes clear the scale of the storms’ impact exceeds the state’s response capacity and therefore justifies federal assistance."
"The storms damaged our roads, bridges, and culverts, while also impacting livestock, homes, and businesses," the congressmen said. "Rural roads, many of which are gravel and highly vulnerable to water damage, form critical infrastructure for our farmers and ranchers whose work forms the backbone of the South Dakota economy."
The state Senate on March 29 — before the second storm hit — passed a resolution urging the state's congressional delegation to push for federal assistance.
Per Wednesday's news release from Noem's office, there are currently six other open presidential disaster declarations for separate events in South Dakota, and the state is "working with FEMA on the recovery process for each of those disasters."
Since March's Winter Storm Ulmer and April's Winter Storm Wesley, the state hasn't caught much of a break, with ongoing wet conditions and a rare winter storm in the Black Hills this week. According to Susan Sanders, a National Weather Service meteorologist, some areas west of Rapid City saw as much as 22 inches of snow accumulation between Monday and Wednesday.
Sanders said the area has seen winter weather into May in the past — including 2015's infamous Mother's Day weekend snowstorm — but that accumulation to this degree is "unusual" this late into the month.
And, much like the two severe storms earlier this spring, areas are now experiencing severe flooding as the snow melts. Sanders said parts of the White River, in particular, are in a major flood stage as of Wednesday.
From the looks of the National Weather Service's forecast, precipitation won't let up for the next several days, with rain expected through Friday throughout the state.
In anticipation of the first storm this spring, Noem on March 15 signed a statewide emergency declaration, which eventually encompassed both March and April's storms and floods. Spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety Tony Mangan said this was because there was no break between the storms: "It was blizzard, flood, blizzard."
Once conditions improved, Mangan said the state emergency declaration was lifted on April 26. Noem has not, as of Wednesday afternoon, declared a separate emergency for this week's snow in the west and rain in the east.
On top of low commodity prices and an ongoing tariff war, the cold, wet spring certainly hasn't helped South Dakota's farmers and ranchers. Spokesperson for the state Department of Agriculture Maggie Stensaas said Wednesday via email that this week's weather has caused more flooding and "could impact the health of livestock, particularly young calves." Agriculture is South Dakota's number one industry.