SD Sioux reservation struggling after winter storms South Dakota's impoverished reservations hit hard by winter weather
By Wayne Ortman
EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. — Sonny Brave Eagle and his family spent six days in the dark without a phone or working radio before law officers found them in their home after a fierce winter storm cut power across South Dakota's impoverished Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
"We didn't know what was going on," said Brave Eagle, among hundreds of people on the sprawling reservation amid a second week without electricity as utility workers struggle to make repairs. The storm brought down power lines, iced roads and led to water outages.
Tribal Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty estimated that 1,500 to 1,700 homes were still without power Monday, and said it would take "better than three weeks" to get the reservation up and running again.
The tribe has spent "enormous amounts" of money on such needs as fuel and water, and an emergency fund that had $175,000 a few months ago has been drained, said tribal spokeswoman Natalie Stites.
For now, Brave Eagle, his wife and their two young daughters stay at an emergency shelter or a relative's house with four other families. They didn't have a vehicle or even batteries to power a radio when the lights went out at their house, about 12 miles north of Eagle Butte in north-central South Dakota, after a powerful ice storm hit Jan. 20.
Ice coated roads and electrical lines, and forced shops and schools to close. Then before residents could recover, a blizzard tore through the Dakotas with wind gusts between 25 and 50 mph.
The frozen ground complicated efforts to replace power poles, and snow had to be cleared away to allow utility crews to get close enough to rebuild transmission lines, said Brings Plenty.
The power outage led to equipment malfunctions at a pumping plant in a pipeline system that provides drinking water to the reservation. Water service and pressure must be restored gradually in an old system with weak pipes, the tribal chairman added.
About 8,000 people live on the reservation, which is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and the outages affected everyone, Stites said.
But the reservation faced difficulties well before the storms. The unemployment rate is 80 percent, tribal leaders say. More than half of Ziebach County and 38 percent of Dewey County lived in poverty in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The reservation spans both counties.
Several shelters and distribution centers were set up around the reservation. At the height of the outages, about 14,000 people in the region were without water - most of them at Cheyenne River.
The number of water outages had declined Monday, with about 100 people still affected, said Tri County Mni Waste Water System general manager Leo Fischer.
The South Dakota National Guard helped bring in generators from the state. The tribe distributed fuels such as propane, delivered donated bottled water and sent bulk water tanks around the reservation.
Brings Plenty said no deaths had been reported, but a few people became sick from carbon monoxide fumes given off by makeshift heating sources.
"We could have had quite a few people perish in this," he said.
Seventeen dialysis patients were moved to a hotel at the Prairie Winds Casino in southwest South Dakota, said Rick Shangreaux, the casino's acting general manager. The patients are being treated at a facility on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the casino is located.
On the Net:
Facebook site for tribal disaster relief: http://www.causes.com/crst2010disasterrelief
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