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Flooding Devastates Life On The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation


We're going to turn to South Dakota now. That's where the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has been in a state of emergency for almost two weeks now. This is because of fallout from blizzards, snowmelt and high water. The floodwaters are receding, but still, one of the country's poorest communities is facing a very long recovery. Here's Lee Strubinger from South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: Rapid snowmelt from a recent blizzard turned the White Horse Creek into a roiling body of water, spilling over its banks. The culvert in Joyce Little Dog's driveway washed out over the weekend. The 72-year-old Lakota elder is sitting in her wheelchair today at the front door of her house. She says she's been stuck in her home for almost two weeks now.

JOYCE LITTLE DOG: But the only thing is that I can't - you know, like, if I need to go to the hospital - because I had a stroke - to get my medicine, I can't do that. When people, you know, come - want to come in and try to take me, but they can't get in. So that's the only bad part.

STRUBINGER: Down at the White Horse Creek, Little Dog's son Terrance and a day labor camp are trying to reinstall metal culverts into the fast-flowing creek to prevent the road from getting washed out again.

TERRANCE LITTLE DOG: You know, we're in survival mode. We're finding a lot of, you know, people like this that are stuck in their houses, haven't been out for weeks, you know. And we've been delivering food over there. We have boats that could get across creeks when they were like this or a little bit higher.

STRUBINGER: The floodwaters are receding, but the reservation's resources are stretched beyond the limit. Shortly after the blizzard, warmer temperatures quickly melted the snow, flooding the reservation's creeks. Dams here were inundated with water flowing north from Nebraska. Then last week, a pipe that provides much of the drinking water for the tribe was washed out. On Saturday, Governor Kristi Noem activated National Guard troops to help distribute water here. West of Little Dog's place, a team of community action program managers quickly put together a response plan. Volunteers scrambled to get food and water to those stranded in their homes.

Coordinator Elizabeth Morrison (ph) says they were able to set up an evacuation plan and establish two shelters.

ELIZABETH MORRISON: We're Lakota women. We know what needs to be done. We get it done. (Laughter) I'm really proud of everybody out here.

STRUBINGER: Morrison says they're keeping meticulous track of volunteer hours and resources to make sure they meet the threshold for FEMA assistance. Weather events like these are compounded on the reservation, where half of all residents live below the poverty line. Peri Pourier is a state lawmaker who represents the reservation in the South Dakota Statehouse. She started to raise money and coordinate recovery efforts. Pourier says Pine Ridge is so economically challenged that nearly any emergency becomes devastating.

PERI POURIER: We're stretched thin, and it's a hardship every single time these things happen, and it's not sustainable. Our people are the ones who suffer the most.

STRUBINGER: Joyce Little Dog has lived on this piece of land her entire life and says she's used to the ground being saturated in the spring. But after two weeks of relying on others to bring her food and water, she says she's ready to leave the house.

J LITTLE DOG: My two sons, they've really been helpful. But (laughter) I told them, you guys better try to get that done before the 3, I said, before April 3, so I can go to town (laughter).

STRUBINGER: She hopes her property dries out before Easter, when, in a normal year, the grass and trees begin to turn green.

For NPR News, I'm Lee Strubinger on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "BEHIND THE BARN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lee Strubinger