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Reservations brace for winter storms amid slow recovery

PINE RIDGE, S.D. – Snow blanketed the living room of Erna Shepard’s home the morning after a storm on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

“I’m going to freeze,” she said.

It’s been 10 months since the “bomb cyclone” that dumped the snow and rain that Shepard, 48, says caused the roof of her mobile home to cave in. While she’s managed to find a temporary home with her sister, like many people living in several Native American communities in South Dakota, she has struggled to recover from a storm and flooding that swelled rivers, swallowed roads and stranded thousands of people.

“The harsh thing about these climate-related events is that when they happen to these communities, we don’t recover really,” said Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s elected leadership.

It’s a compounding problem: Year after year, storms batter roads and homes, but federal recovery funding is restricted to damage from a single disaster and a specific timeframe. Unable to prove that the damage they’ve experienced was caused by just one event, residents and officials are left without the help they need to fix their homes and roads.

Then another storm comes.

“Once the winds start howling, my wife worries again,” said Henry Red Cloud, who lives on Pine Ridge.

Before the March storm, Red Cloud, 60, ran workshops on his property on solar panel and wind turbine installation. But that halted after flooding damaged his workshop and he had to focus on repairing their trailer home.

Steve Wilson, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s emergency manager, said efforts to get roads ready for winter have been slowed by a lack of documentation and the complexities of processing federal recovery money.

Wilson said the roads department is working with a small budget and an undersized staff while trying to repair gaps in roads that he said “would swallow homes up.” People on Pine Ridge rely on thousands of miles of dirt roads to access medical care, school, and essentials like food and fuel, and tribal leaders say a major upgrade is needed.

Last year, the tribe used horses, snowmobiles and a helicopter to reach stranded residents. He’s prepared to do the same this year.

As for Shepard, in the last nine months, her life has unraveled. She sent a teenage son to live with another relative. Her 22-year-old son had no place to live and killed himself in September, she said.

“It would have been all right if he had a place to stay,” she said.

She tried to make her mobile home livable, covering the doors and windows with blankets to keep out the cold. Then thieves broke in and stole her wood-burning stove.

She applied for assistance from FEMA, but was denied.

FEMA spokesman Phil Wernisch said he can’t talk about individual cases, but he noted that previous disasters have occurred on the reservation and this help was only for damage from March and April flooding.

Applicants must show that the damage to their homes came during the dates of the disaster and provide documents showing they live there.

The rate of approval for households on tribal land was much lower for this storm than in other parts of the state. In Oglala Lakota County, which lies on the Pine Ridge Reservation, 26% of people who applied were approved. In Minnehaha County, which contains South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, the rate of approval was 76%

Recovery workers said many homes on Pine Ridge were damaged in hail storms in July 2018.

Delbert Brewer, who previously worked for FEMA and now consults on emergency responses for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said FEMA inspectors are trained to look for “deferred maintenance,” or damage that came from weather outside the disaster declaration dates. On the reservation, home insurance is rare and poverty is common, he said. Many left hail damage unrepaired.

Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, attributed the low approval rates to a communication breakdown. Many older people on the reservation speak Lakota. Although FEMA hired translators, Bear Runner said it was still a challenge to communicate.

“It was very frustrating for the people because even though some of the damages were from the hail storm, the snow and flooding also caused damage as well,” Bear Runner said.

Wernisch said FEMA works with tribes and hires local liaisons and translators. FEMA does not discourage people from registering for disaster assistance even if there are questions about when the damage occurred, said Wernisch. If FEMA is unable to help, it refers people to nonprofit organizations.

But Maretta Champagne, who operates one of those organizations, called Lakota Nation Disaster Resiliency, said her budget does not allow her to help everyone. She is still working through a list of over a thousand rejected applicants that FEMA gave her after a disaster declaration in 2015.

“It was really disheartening to see some of these people and the condition they’re in,” Champagne said. “When you’re dealing with tribal lands, it’s a whole different world here.”