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Pine Ridge Reservation residents stranded, without water as dam threatens to break

David Gibbons, left, and Shane Mesteth ride down a muddy road to the highway to gather food, water and medical supplies for residents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, March 22, 2019. On Pine Ridge, extreme weather and bad roads have set off a humanitarian disaster that seems unlikely to abate soon. Kristina Barker / ©2019 The New York Times

PINE RIDGE, S.D. -- Betty Lou Brave Heart had a doctor’s appointment scheduled last Tuesday, March 19, to remove staples from her recent shoulder surgery. Nearly a week later, she still hadn’t been able to get to the medical center for the follow-up appointment.

Brave Heart, like many others on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Southwest South Dakota, is stranded in her home after floods have ravaged the state and entirety of the Midwest. Her long dirt driveway more closely resembles a river than anything remotely passable by a vehicle, and at 70 years old, she is unable to walk through the muddy terrain to the road.

“I’m going to look in my toolbox. I might have a tool to (take out the staples),” she joked. “Except I can’t work my left hand,” she added, gesturing to her sutures on her right shoulder.

Brave Heart isn’t alone. Families across the reservation have been left stranded in their homes, their roads and driveways impassable or homes surrounded by water. The Oglala Sioux tribe’s emergency management team, along with outside help from volunteers and the Rapid City Fire Department, has conducted swift water evacuations and brought food and supplies to stranded families.

State Rep. Peri Pourier, D-Pine Ridge, said the Grass Creek community, located more than 10 miles from any main highway, has needed supplies delivered on horseback.

Last week, the situation became more dire: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s office reported that 8,000 residents in Oglala Lakota County were left without access to water because of water main breaks. Since then, the state deployed South Dakota National Guard troops, as well as four 2,500-gallon water tanks to the reservation to provide safe drinking water.

Debra Byrd, a 24-year-old resident of Porcupine, located on the reservation, has been living at her mother’s house for three months, since the first major storm of the season washed out her driveway. The situation exacerbated by the melt-off from a recent blizzard, Byrd stood ankle-deep in mud as water rushed across the driveway to her home.

At her mother’s, water service was restored on Monday, March 25. They had been without for six days.

Though some residents have had their rural water service restored, many still remain under a boiling advisory. Pourier said it’s hard to determine exactly how many people lost water and how many have it restored because each of the nine districts of the tribe maintain their own records. Totals have not yet been calculated she said.

And now, Pourier said another crisis could be imminent: A sinkhole was identified at the Oglala dam. Emergency management workers and Rapid City Fire Department workers had been working since Monday morning to sandbag and secure the area to prevent a break.

Pourier gestured across the vast expanse of rolling hills near the Oglala community: “If that breaks, this will all be washed away.”

Jesse Big Crow works as a planning and coordination specialist on the tribe’s emergency management team. She is one of three full-time employees on the team, which serves the entirety of the nearly 11,000-square-mile reservation.

A volunteer was helping to work the front desk of the team’s office, located in the village of Pine Ridge, on Monday as Jesse managed affairs from a cramped office in the back. On the walls were whiteboards with scribbled notes denoting where shelters and water tanks were placed throughout the reservation at the time.

Big Crow placed a thick white binder on the desk, crowded with papers. Every sheet of paper in the binder was a record for one call made to the team -- about 150 since Friday, she said.

What the team needs most, she said, is more manpower, resources and equipment to help as many residents as possible. Big Crow said she has been working from 6 a.m. past midnight since the floods began.

“I don’t know the last time I brushed my hair,” she said.

Pourier said Pine Ridge and other reservations are in need of more funding from the federal government, and that resources are tight even when not faced with natural disaster.

“We’re in survival mode on a daily basis,” she said, “When things like this happen, it’s devastating on all different levels.”

Pourier said federal, state and tribal governments can work to communicate more effectively in the future to help protect tribal members from disaster.

“We’re all in this together. We’re from the same state,” Pourier said. “We need to be on a more cooperative level across jurisdictions because it’s the people that suffer.”

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