MITCHELL, S.D. — Roads are flooded. Homes are destroyed. People have been stranded or stuck.
After more than 7 inches of rain in the span of 48 hours, the question now looms: What’s next?
For sure, months of work and recovery in southeastern South Dakota are ahead, and local officials are seeking to prioritize the work necessary to assure dangerous situations are stabilized. In other cases, people are being moved to safety, and officials are figuring out just how bad some of the damage is.
In some cases, it’s a replay of the flooding and damage caused earlier this year when the winter storm “bomb cyclone” mixed heavy snow and rain with blizzard conditions to wash away roads and property.
“Much of the damage is in the same locations and in the same situations, it’s just intensified,” Davison County Chairwoman Brenda Bode said. “The ground is saturated and there was no opportunity for this moisture to be soaked up. It had to run off.”
In the southeast corner of the state, 26 state highways and roads were reported closed due to bridges being out or water over the roads. That didn’t include county or township roads, along with municipal streets in small towns. Three road closures were reported on State Highway 44 from Platte to Parkston alone.
Bode, who lives in the northwest part of Davison County, said roads around her are not passable. She said her message remains simple to those in rural areas.
“Just because it has stopped raining, it’s not safe to be driving in the country,” Bode said.
Some of those lessons were learned the hard way Thursday night and Friday morning. More people had to be rescued from a western Mitchell neighborhood because high waters moved in quickly after a retention pond overflowed.
In Hanson County, a man was seriously injured Friday morning in a crash near Spencer in which the front of the truck he was driving dove into a break in the pavement State Highway 38. That was the site of where a culvert had given away. Later in the day, in nearly the same location, the roadway near Spencer Quarries was completely flooded.
Overnight, three people were rescued in Hanson County 5 miles southeast of Mitchell after driving around a road closed sign and hitting a washed-out culvert.
Bode said she has been in frequent communication with Highway Superintendent Rusty Weinberg and Emergency Management Director Jeff Bathke, as often as updates every two hours. Those two county officials have been the point people for providing services to the public, and understanding the damage around the county with roads and infrastructure, which she said is only beginning.
“The short answer is that we’re not at that point yet where we can really make big, long-term plans,” she said. “We’re still trying to keep people out of the water, to be honest.”
Bode said the county’s leaders estimate there are six bridges in the county that have sustained significant damage, a figure they’re afraid could continue to climb in numbers.
“To know how bad the damage is yet, we just don’t know,” Bode said. “We’ve barricaded primarily everything we can.”
She said she wants to be cautious about making any sorts of evaluations, mainly because she doesn’t want Davison County to sell itself short on any possible assistance. She said she expects the county will be in contact with FEMA and potentially get additional support.
“We want to get as much information as we can, and make a decision that is best for the county,” she said.
Outside of Mitchell, flooding only got worse in some areas. The Wolf Creek Colony in Hutchinson County sustained major flooding damage after a dike protecting colony buildings broke. The James River at Scotland broke its 35-year flood stage record on Friday, climbing to 21.61 feet, as of 3:30 p.m. Friday. The previous record was 20.5 feet, set on June 23, 1984. The river is expected to crest at 22 feet on Saturday and is expected to remain at major flood stage throughout next week.
The Firesteel Creek at Mount Vernon has already climbed past where it was in March at its peak, when it crested at 14.44 feet on March 22. On Thursday, it was observed at 15.17 feet, while major flood stage begins at 15 feet. The creek is expected to crest very early Saturday morning, before gradually working its way back down on Sunday.
On the James River at Mitchell, the river crested at 25.01 feet, staying just below the record of 25.3 feet. The river is expected to continue decreasing in stage over the weekend.
In Brandon, high waters swamped the community and left people with only Interstate 90 as the primary route to reach the community. Gov. Kristi Noem said Thursday she expects the state will make a request for a federal disaster declaration related to the flooding but a timeline for when that will happen remains unclear.
Mitchell Public Works Director Kyle Croce said the city has put much of its energy into making sure the community’s lift stations remain workable and the sanitary sewer system remains open, despite those systems being overrun by high amounts of waste water and storm water.
“We’re just trying to get that water moved away,” he said. “We want to make sure the sanitary sewer lines can accept what the system is putting in, and keep things adequately moving.”
Croce estimated they’ve received about 30 calls regarding damaged properties with water in their basements or sewage backing up, and he anticipates that others haven’t come forward with damage reports to this point.
“This has been an unusual and extreme flood event,” he said. “We’re going to learn more about this and the damage as we go, and there’s going to be a lot to do, and there’s a number of residents that understand what we’re going through.”
Croce said it is hard to know exactly the relationship from the damage in this storm to what occurred in the spring but the already wet conditions likely didn’t help matters.
“We’ve had a lot of water in general because of the numerous storm events,” Croce said. “It’s been hard for that water table to drop, hard for that water to flow out. We’ve been saturated. We haven’t had that chance to dry out, so I think in that way, it is compounding.”
Croce also said monitoring will continue to occur at Dry Run Creek and at Firesteel Creek to keep residents aware of water conditions and to make sure they’re protected. He said he was appreciative of the efforts of Dakota Wesleyan University’s athletic teams and students, and other groups, that have helped with sandbags.
A flooding repeat
There’s also concern on tribal land about the response to flooding. Ellwsorth Chytka, who lives a mile from Lake Andes and is a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said the namesake lake is normally about one-quarter mile from his house. On Friday, it was 10 feet away, with water already in his basement.
Like flooding in the spring, tribal housing and the powwow grounds near Lake Andes are flooded again. It has again affected access to the community of Lake Andes, again crossing the recently repaired U.S. Highway 18/281 which splits the town and the tribal housing.
“Something has to be done,” Chytka said. “If something doesn’t get done before winter, we’re going to have more of town under water. … It’s not just the road going through Lake Andes.”
The 71-year-old was frustrated about his tribe’s response to flooding this spring, saying the continual flooding shows the impacts of climate change. In August, Yankton Sioux officials pointed the finger at Noem, saying her response to the road flooding wasn’t adequate and that she didn’t do enough to help with housing needs in the face of flooding earlier this year.
Chytka said the problems in his community are indicative of larger issues.
“We’re going to have sickness and mold,” he said. “This water is contaminated. There is a problem and nobody is addressing the issue.”