South Dakota tribe: Storm deaths ‘could have been prevented’

South Dakota tribe: Storm deaths ‘could have been prevented’

South Dakota tribe: Storm deaths ‘could have been prevented’

Honor Beauvais’ every breath was a struggle as a snowstorm ravaged the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

The asthmatic 12-year-old’s concerned aunt and uncle asked for help to clear a path to their cattle ranch near the township of Two Strike as his condition worsened and his fragile lungs battled a massive infection. But by the time an ambulance got through, Honor’s uncle was already performing CPR, his grandmother, Rose Cordier-Beauvais, said.

Honor, whose Lakota name is Yuonihan Ihanble, was pronounced dead at the Indian Health Service hospital on the reserve last month, one of six deaths that tribal leaders say “could have been prevented” had it not been a series of systemic errors would. Targets of frustration are Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, the US Congress, the Indian Health Service and – for some – even the tribe itself.

“We were all just shocked,” said Cordier-Beauvais, who recalled that when the snow was finally far enough away for the funeral to go ahead, the family gave out toys to other children as a symbol of how he was involved played with his siblings. “He loved giving them toys.”

As the storm raged, families ran out of fuel and two people froze to death, including one in their home, the Rosebud Sioux tribe said in a letter this month asking for a disaster declaration from the president.

The letter described the situation on the reservation in a remote area on the state’s southernmost border with Nebraska, 130 miles (about 209 kilometers) southeast of Rapid City, as a “disaster.”

And in a scathing speech on the state of the tribes delivered in the state Legislature last week, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe leader Peter Lengkeek accused emergency services of being “too slow to respond” as the tribes attempted to clear the snow clear, with many using what he described as “obsolete equipment and decrepit resources.”

Noem’s spokesman Ian Fury said the claims were part of a “false narrative” and “couldn’t be further from the truth”. Indian health services did not immediately respond to email messages from The Associated Press for comment.

Noem, considered a potential 2024 White House contender, declared a state of emergency on Dec. 22 to respond to the winter storm and activated the state’s National Guard to haul firewood to the tribe.

But by then, the Rosebud Sioux tribe had been exhausted by a series of storms that began about 10 days earlier and were so fierce that its leaders eventually hired two helicopters to take food to remote locations and rescue the stranded.

The firewood, said OJ Semans, an adviser to the tribe, came in the form of uncut logs that were not immediately usable. The tribe wrote in its letter that volunteers continue to work diligently to get the woodcut.

“It was a political stunt that didn’t help people in trouble,” he said.

It all started on December 12 when the tribe closed offices to allow people to prepare for the first attack. The storm hit in earnest around midnight, dumping an average of nearly 2 feet of snow on the reserve, most of it on the first day, said Alex Lamers, a weather forecaster with the National Weather Service.

By the time the storm abated on December 16, the reservation was also covered with a quarter inch of ice, and wind gusts up to 55 miles per hour had blown the snow into drifts as large as 7.6 meters (25 feet).

The tribe issued a travel ban warning, except in emergencies, and threatened violators with a $500 fine. Still, some traveled and got stuck, the tribe said, their abandoned vehicles posing a hazard to first responders.

Beginning December 18, shortly after the blizzard cleared, there were 11 consecutive days of sub-zero temperatures. Wind chills were dangerous, reaching -51 degrees Fahrenheit (-46.11 degrees Celsius) at their lowest. The length and severity of the cold made it one of the worst such stretches on record, Lamers said.

Then, on December 22, as intense cold and storms swept across the rest of the country and claimed at least 40 lives in western New York, a phenomenon called the ground blizzard hit the reservation. Strong winds blew existing snow onto the ground. and visibility fell to a quarter of a mile, Lamers said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs sent workers to help, and the White House said FEMA also spoke to the tribe’s president. But snowplows were paralyzed in the cold as the freezing temperatures turned diesel fuel and hydraulics to gel, the tribe said.

Shawn Bordeaux, a Democratic lawmaker and former tribal council member, went out on the propane heater at his home on the reservation when Noem announced she was deploying the National Guard. He couldn’t get out and shop, he didn’t have any Christmas presents for his kids. Even for those who were able to get out, the store shelves became empty. Gas stations ran out of gas.

“I don’t want to completely trick the system, but we were left to our own devices,” said Bordeaux, who often criticizes the governor. “She basically left us hanging.”

The tribe also claims that Congress is to blame for not changing the rules that govern how funds from a tribal transportation program are distributed among the nation’s 574 recognized tribes.

Semans said the program’s reliance on making decisions based on tribal registrations hurts the Rosebud Sioux because while membership is relatively modest at 33,210, their land base of nearly 890,000 acres spread across five counties is vast.

That meant there just wasn’t enough equipment to respond, said Semans, who lost two family members in the storm.

One of them, his 54-year-old cousin Anthony DuBray, froze to death outside, his body was found after Christmas.

The other victim, his brother-in-law Douglas James Dillon Sr., called for help during the first storm because his asthma flared up. But to get to the hospital would have meant being carried more than a quarter mile across snow banks to a deputy’s squad car.

Semans said looking outside showed it was “nearly impossible,” so Dillon went to bed. He died on December 17 at the age of 59.

Snowed in for 15 days, Semans and his wife Barbara used a propane space heater to stave off the cold after losing power. They were unearthed just in time to get to Dillon’s funeral eleven days after his death.

“Even anger doesn’t reach the level of neglect,” Semans said. “It was an atrocity.”

For Honor, who was loved as a prankster, his illness came at the worst of the storm.

It was December 14 and his aunt Brooki Whipple, with whom he spent weekdays as she and her family lived near his school, became more and more frantic as Honor gasped.

The family asked for help, and eventually a snowplow cleared the road to their ranch. Cordier-Beauvais said Honor and his uncle Gary Whipple immediately made their way to the hospital, just 3 miles away.

While there, Honor was diagnosed with the flu and sent home, although Cordier-Beauvais, with whom he spent weekends and summers, called to tell hospital staff the family wanted to take him in because they were worried about getting out again.

The next day, Honor was still fighting – and the roads were impassable.

“Because of the strong winds,” Rosebud Sioux Tribe Highway Safety warned that day, “the plow routes are quickly being filled in again.”

Cordier-Beauvais, the chief executive of the tribe, stayed on the phone with her concerned daughter, who had given birth to a baby boy just days before, and prayed during the hour-long effort to get help clearing the road.

But the help came too late.

A doctor called to break the news to Brooki, who was home with the baby and her daughter, who was Honor’s age that her family called them “the twins.”

“In our Lakota way, they are brothers and sisters. Inseparable,” said Cordier-Beauvais. “She didn’t handle it well. Of course she’s a kid and Brooki was so stressed. But she had her baby and had to take care of her. And it was just awful.”

Without a change in the weather, Honor was not buried for almost four weeks.

At the funeral, Cordier-Beauvais recalled that her basketball-loving grandson’s closest friends were pallbearers.

“They just all miss him so much,” she said.

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Stephen Groves in Pierre, South Dakota and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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