The record-breaking floods that hit parts of the midwestern United States last week are shaping up as a long-term, slow-moving disaster, with residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation stranded for nearly two weeks with limited food and water, at least 50 levees across the region breached or overtopped, experts predicting months of flooding, and nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states facing elevated risk through May.
At Pine Ridge, site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and the subsequent occupation by Native Americans in 1973, the New York Times opens its coverage with the arduous journey of Ella Red Cloud-Yellow Horse, 59, who’d been marooned fat home or days, was fighting pneumonia, and had to get to hospital for a chemotherapy appointment.
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“Such stories are startlingly common these days on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota — a stunning stretch of land larger than Delaware — as an overwhelming bout of snow and flooding has set off a humanitarian disaster that seems unlikely to abate soon,” the paper reports. “With some residents approaching two weeks stranded in their homes, and with emergency rations able to reach parts of the back country only by horse, boat, and helicopter, Pine Ridge remains in a state of shock and triage.”
The Times cites officials with the Oglala Sioux Tribe who “say they lack the training, manpower, and equipment needed to deal with such a large-scale crisis. And there’s a pervasive sense on Pine Ridge, a place of long-strained relations with the state and federal governments, that help has been woefully slow to arrive, and that few people beyond the reservation know or care much about its plight.”
“This is a state of emergency right now,” said local solar energy entrepreneur Henry Red Cloud, whose family lost five homes, a forklift, a truck, a van, and the building where his business was housed in the flooding.
“What we need to be doing is building sandbag walls—not a southern border wall.”
“Pine Ridge was far from alone in being hit with damaging quantities of snow and water this month,” the Times notes. “But while conversations about recovery were already under way in the hardest-hit portions of Nebraska and Iowa, where most roads have reopened and many rivers have started to recede, Pine Ridge, with a population of about 20,000, remained in a state of hour-to-hour chaos. Some of the tribe’s scarce heavy equipment was lost in the mud. Jail inmates were enlisted to fill sandbags. New parents worried as they ran low on infant formula.”
And “unlike in Nebraska, where the National Guard rescued 111 people, including some by helicopter and boat, outside help for Pine Ridge was conspicuously scarce at first. South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, has been seen by many Pine Ridge officials and residents as slow to respond.”
Noem countered that the community’s requests for assistance had only come in in recent days. “When we became aware is when we responded,” she told the Times after visiting the reservation Saturday.
The Times traces the historical and logistical problems facing Pine Ridge, while Common Dreams points to the community as an example of the “racial divide in the climate crisis”.
It cites a tweet by reporter Selina Guevara listing the wider challenges the community faces: 80 to 90% unemployment, per capita income of US$4,000, elevated rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, tuberculosis, alcoholism, suicide, and teen suicide, and one in four infants with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects. “Even before the floods, conditions on Pine Ridge have been described as ‘third world,'” she wrote.
“I visited Wounded Knee, where, in 1890, hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children were butchered by the United States cavalry,” added Native American journalist Julian NoiseCat. “Yesterday, residents of the Wounded Knee houses were walking down the highway to get water rations from the National Guard.”
“We’re seeing the differential impact of climate change unfold before our eyes in real time,” 350.org tweeted in response.
Across the wider region, floodwaters were beginning to recede in affected parts of Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska. But with three people dead, two missing, and damages already estimated at $3 billion, experts were warning of plenty of risk ahead, The Associated Press reports. “As temperatures start to warm, snowmelt in the Dakotas and Minnesota will escalate, sending more water down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries, along with the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota,” the news agency states.
“There’s a sense from the National Weather Service that we should expect it to continue to happen into May,” said Bill Brinton, emergency management director in Buchanan County, MO. “With our levee breaches in Atchison and Holt and Buchanan counties, it’s kind of scary really.”
Hundreds of homes in Buchanan were caught up in a “precautionary evacuation”, AP notes, and when residents eventually return home, “officials say they need to be careful. Contaminants that escaped from flooded farm fields, industrial operations, and sewage plants are part of the murky water now saturating homes.” They add that “sharp objects—broken glass, pieces of metal, pointy sticks, and rocks—could lurk in muddy debris. Downed or broken power lines also may pose electrocution hazards.”
The midwestern system of earthen-walled levees is a whole other problem, with billions of dollars in repairs on the horizon and “renewed criticism from conservation groups, who say America’s scattershot approach to flood control and development near rivers is simply setting the stage for future disasters,” the New York Times reports.
Already, “dozens of levees built to protect people from flooding have catastrophically failed,” the paper states. “Now, with an inland sea of water surging downstream, towns along the Missouri River and beyond are stacking up sandbags and wondering whether their own levees could be the next to fail. At least 50 levees have been breached or overtopped by rivers engorged with late-winter rains and snowmelt, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.”
The collapses left some counties in Iowa and Nebraska underwater, the Times recounts, with local officials saying they’ve never seen such severe damage to flood protection systems.
“It was catastrophic,” said Miles County, Iowa emergency management director Larry Hurst, whose jurisdiction sustained eight breaches. “How are we going to fix it and who’s going to fix it? The tax base isn’t there to build a whole new levee. What are we going to do?”
The Times recounts a scattered system for maintaining the country’s 100,000 miles of levees, with no single agency and no consistent set of safety rules guiding their management. “We’ve adopted this piecemeal approach,” said University of California, Davis geologist Nicholas Pinter. “We built these walls up to give the illusion of protection.”
The focus on that illusion—real or perceived—is about to get more widespread, with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warning that 25 U.S. states could experience “major or moderate flooding,” and nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 at elevated risk of some flooding between now and May, the Times reports. With the prospect of as many as 13 million people affected, the director of NOAA’s National Water Center, Edward Clark, said this flood season is “potentially unprecedented”.
“The flooding this year could be worse than anything we’ve seen in recent years, even worse than the historic floods of 1993 and 2011,” National Weather Service Deputy Director Mary Erickson told media. She called the flooding so far “a preview of what we expect throughout the rest of the spring”.