April 19, 2019

The Perfect Storm: Climate Disaster and Political Negligence

Matt Aijala

The day after the Notre Dame cathedral erupted into flames, US President Donald Trump offered condolences to French President Emmanuel Macron over damage done to the historic building. White House Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders even promised that the US would provide “assistance in the rehabilitation of this irreplaceable symbol of Western civilization.”

Meanwhile, President Trump’s White House has failed to acknowledge the communities within his own country who have repeatedly asked for federal assistance while facing a real national emergency.

The residents of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are struggling to find help amid disastrous, life-threatening flooding following two recent winter storms. While immediate action is needed, governmental disregard and a lack of mainstream news coverage has left many Americans in the dark about this ongoing disaster. Although the storms have ended and the floodwaters have begun to recede, the damage will last for years—and the lives lost will never be reclaimed.

The Lakota People’s Law Project is petitioning President Trump to do the right thing and declare a federal emergency in Pine Ridge: please add your voice here.

Ulmer and Wesley

Within just one month, the upper plains states of the midwest experienced the catastrophic impacts of “bomb cyclones” Ulmer and Wesley. Like a hurricane, a bomb cyclone occurs when a low pressure winter storm meets a mass of warm air, resulting in a phenomenon known as bombogenesis. During bombogenesis, the storm generates strong wind gusts and elevated levels of precipitation that persist for days at a time.

Snow melt and increased rainfall in the midwest were compounded by a rush of warm winds just before the arrival of Ulmer and Wesley, and brought the Missouri River to levels beyond what dozens of levees could handle. Widespread flooding occurred across communities in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In Pine Ridge, about an hour and half south of Rapid City in South Dakota, homes were destroyed, families displaced, and an already-disadvantaged community was left without basic survival needs. In combination with a lack of federal support, Ulmer and Wesley became perfect storms, a relentless series of weather events onset by worsening climate conditions and exasperated by archaic infrastructure.

Pine Ridge in Peril

While the impacts of these freak weather events are widespread, the distribution of aid has not been proportionate. Seated in the southwestern region of South Dakota and about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, the vast Pine Ridge Reservation is home to around 20,000 residents, mostly Oglala Sioux Tribe citizens who have suffered extensively as a result of Ulmer and Wesley. Ulmer submerged homes and washed away roads—but the tribe’s calls for government assistance went largely ignored. When Wesley disrupted recovery efforts, federal aid remained out of reach.

Residents are “underfunded and strapped for resources” and are “already in survival mode every day,” said Pine Ridge resident and South Dakota state legislator Peri Pourier in an interview with NPR. For many days, nearly half of the reservation’s population went without access to clean drinking water.

Currently, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner, Public Relations Director Chase Iron Eyes, and Emergency Manager Steve Wilson are working with Lakota People’s Law Project disaster response expert Delbert Brewer to appeal for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid, but as Iron Eyes states in the video below,“that process could take months. We don’t have months.”

This is not the first time the Oglala Sioux Tribe has had difficulty obtaining federal assistance during an emergency. In July 2018, after a severe summer hail storm, the reservation was denied federal assistance when FEMA deemed damages not significant enough to constitute a disaster—despite widespread, costly devastation to homes, including smashed windows, golf ball-sized holes in the walls, and tattered roofs.

While residents of Pine Ridge both literally and figuratively try to keep their heads above water, residents of towns like Waterloo, Nebraska (population 1,000) receive visits from Vice President Mike Pence, ensuring them “that federal resources are there for you.”  

No such promises exist for the people of Pine Ridge.

The state, fellow tribes, and the American Red Cross did provide some relief. Thanks to the persistence of community leaders, on the thirteenth day of flooding, a National Guard support battalion showed up to to distribute water to the more than 8,000 residents who had been without ample supply for days. The Red Cross also deployed roughly 100 volunteers to help distribute food, water, and clean-up kits. From across the state, the Yankton Sioux Tribe, another Lakota band, donated 10,000 water bottles to residents of Pine Ridge.

Working hand in hand with President Bear Runner, the Lakota People’s Law Project has helped put out the call for further support. Skilled volunteers and in-kind donations of bottled water, hygiene products, building supplies, and much more are still much needed.

A Changing Climate

Residents of the midwest are calling these storms “500-year” floods—events that are supposed to happen once every 500 years. But as the effects of climate change become more apparent, that time frame is shrinking more with each passing year. While global temperatures climb, storms of this intensity begin to seem like a regular occurance.

Much of the climate in the midwest is regulated by the Great Lakes, with temperature, precipitation, pressure, and all the ingredients of a storm relying heavily on these masses of water. According to a report commissioned by the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, the mean air temperature of the United States Midwest has risen 1.6 degrees celsius over the last century and precipitation among the Great Lakes regions has risen 10 percent within this same timeframe.

According to climate scientist Donald Wuebbles of the University of Illinois, “a warmer atmosphere, by basic physics, holds more moisture, so it’s really not that surprising that we’ve had bizarre flooding events over the last few decades. It connects very clearly with what we expect.”

Looking Forward

In Pine Ridge, aid is coming slowly, but there is still much work to be done. Some residents still have only minimal access food and drinking water, four tribal members have been confirmed dead after not being accessible to ambulances, and more than a thousand people are still displaced from their homes. Some spent weeks stranded and continue to run dangerously low on supplies to care for themselves, their elders, and their children.

Beyond immediate relief, there must be a focus on precautionary action. Although this seems to be the one of the worst natural disasters to affect Pine Ridge in recent memory, it is far from the first and far from the last. The results of climate change are taking the lives of the Oglala Lakota people and tribal officials are now working to see that proper relief systems are in place in the future. But with a small staff and without federal aid or more volunteer support, there is only so much they can do.

As Pine Ridge resident Henry Red Cloud stated, “Our dams have been built like 80 years ago—they're outdated. If funding was set in place we wouldn't be in the predicament that we are now."

Such critical funding is needed now more than ever, but large infrastructural changes are not likely to occur under the current US administration. Emergencies are erupting across the midwest, partly as a result of the even larger emergency of global climate change. Neither, unfortunately, seem to be pressing issues for President Donald Trump. Instead, the title of “national emergency” has been reserved as an excuse to build a needless wall, ostensibly to halt what he calls “an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country” from the south of the US border. It seems that the priorities of some American politicians are not in line with the needs of the American people of Pine Ridge—the first people of this continent—and other marginalized communities who will continue to suffer as a consequence.

Relief for residents of Pine Ridge is not coming fast enough. To help provide necessary supplies, funds, or to find contacts to volunteer please visit www.lakotalaw.org/resources/oglala-flood-relief.  

Also, please SIGN and SHARE  the petition to urge president Donald Trump to provide federal disaster relief to the Pine Ridge Reservation and other flooded areas in South Dakota.