PIERRE, S.D. -- After a week of historic flooding across the Midwest, 8,000 individuals in Oglala County -- where the Pine Ridge reservation is located -- are without water.
According to Joshua Shields, a spokesperson for Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, floodwaters sweeping across the state have washed out the county’s rural waterline. On Friday, March 22, Shields said eight to 10 South Dakota National Guard active duty members, as well as four 2,500-gallon water tanks, are being sent to the Southwestern county to provide water for those in need.
Shields added that the local water company Oglala Sioux Rural Water System is re-boring the line.
Director of the Department of Public Safety (DPS)’s Office of Emergency Management Tina Titze said that as of Friday, DPS has conducted water rescues for “four or five” families in Pine Ridge. Titze said her office has received reports of several recent deaths on the reservation, but it is unconfirmed at this time whether those deaths were weather-related.
Oglala isn’t South Dakota’s only county struggling as floodwaters continue to ravage the state: Titze said that as of Friday, 16 counties have submitted emergency declarations. With the flooding expected to continue into the spring, and counties scrambling to file their emergency declarations, she said she expects that number to get up to 30.
In addition to Oglala County, located in the southwestern part of the state, Titze said the Emergency Operations Center is responding to resource requests in the southeast, in Minnehaha, Hanson, Union, Jerauld and Charles Mix Counties.
Mike Gillispie, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, said the Big Sioux River has seen water levels rivaling those of the state’s infamous 1969 flood, which resulted in 4,000 evacuations in the southeast and over $15 million in damages.
Though the eastern portion of the state isn’t expected to see more rainfall in the near future, Gillipsie said water levels may continue to rise, though not at the rate they have been. As temperatures continue to warm, he said snow more snow may melt upstream the Big Sioux and James Rivers, gradually rising water levels further.
The western portion of the state holds a slightly different fortune, with rain forecasted in the near future. Melissa Smith, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Rapid City, said the rainfall in addition to more snow melt will further exacerbate flooding in the west.
Both Smith and Gillipsie caution South Dakotans not to drive through or get too close to floodwaters, at the risk of drowning or being injured by debris.
Titze said she has not received any reports of injuries or water-borne illnesses caused by the floodwaters.
Noem on March 15 signed a statewide emergency declaration, allowing the state to access its Disaster Fund, after March’s late-winter blizzard left South Dakota buried in snow, then a quick warm-up melted the snow fast, leading to this week’s flooding.
Noem also activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center, based in Pierre, last week.
Shields said Friday that Noem has had conversations with the federal government about the extreme conditions, and that a FEMA representative is working in the Emergency Operations Center.
“The flooding is going to have a lasting impact on our state’s infrastructure, economy and farmland,” Shields said. “Recovery will be a long road ahead.”