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

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

Every breath for Honor Beauvais was a battle when a snowstorm hit the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

The 12-year-old asthmatic boy’s concerned aunt and uncle pleaded for help clearing a path to their cattle ranch near the community of Two Strike as his condition worsened, his fragile lungs battling a massive infection. But when an ambulance finally made it through, Honor’s uncle was already performing CPR, said his grandmother, Rose Cordier-Beauvais.

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

“We were all shocked,” said Cordier-Beauvais, who recalled that when the snow finally cleared enough to hold the funeral, the family handed out toys to other children as a symbol of playing with their siblings. “He loved giving them toys.”

As the storm raged, families ran out of fuel and two people froze to death, including one at home, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said in a letter this month seeking a presidential disaster declaration.

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

And in a scathing speech on the state of the tribes delivered last week at the state legislature, Peter Lengkeek, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, accused emergency services of being “slow to react” as the tribes struggled to clean up the snow, and many were using what he described as “outdated equipment and wasted resources.”

Noem’s spokesman, Ian Fury, said the claims were part of a “false narrative” and “couldn’t be further from the truth”. The Indian Health Services did not immediately return emails from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Noem, who is seen as a potential candidate for the 2024 White House, declared an emergency Dec. 22 to respond to the winter storm and activated the state National Guard to transport firewood to the tribe.

But by then, the Rosebud Sioux tribe was exhausted by a series of storms that began about 10 days earlier and were so severe that their leaders eventually chartered two helicopters to fly food to remote locations and rescue the stranded.

The firewood, said OJ Semans, a tribal adviser, came in the form of uncut logs, which could not be used immediately. The tribe wrote in their letter that the volunteers continue to work diligently to cut the wood.

“It was a political stunt that did nothing to help people who were in trouble,” he said.

It all started on December 12, when the tribe closed its offices so people could prepare for the first attack. The storm hit hard around midnight, dumping an average of nearly 2 feet (0.61 meters) of snow on the reservation, most of it in the first day, said Alex Lamers, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

When the storm abated on December 16, the preserve was also covered with a quarter-inch of ice, and wind gusts of up to 55 mph had blown the snow in piles up to 25 feet (7.6 meters).

The tribe issued a no-travel-except-in-emergency notice, threatening a $500 fine for violators. Still, some traveled and got stuck, the tribe said, and their abandoned vehicles created a hazard for first responders.

Beginning on December 18, shortly after the blizzard lifted, there were 11 straight days with freezing temperatures. The chills were dangerous, reaching -51 degrees Fahrenheit (-46.11 degrees Celsius) at its lowest point. The length and severity of the cold made it one of the worst such periods on record, Lamers said.

Then, as bitter cold and storms descended on much of the rest of the country, claiming at least 40 lives in western New York, a phenomenon called a blizzard hit the reservation on December 22. Strong winds blew existing snow on the ground, and visibility dropped to a quarter mile, Lamers said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs sent staff to help, and the White House said FEMA also spoke with the tribal president. But snowplows were crippled by the cold, and freezing temperatures turned diesel fuel and hydraulics to gel, the tribe said.

Shawn Bordeaux, a Democratic state legislator and former tribal council member, was running out of propane heat at his reservation home when Noem announced he was sending in the National Guard. Unable to go shopping, he had no Christmas presents for his children. Even for those who could get out, store shelves were emptying. Gas stations were running out of gas.

“I don’t want to totally ignore the system, but they left us alone,” said Bordeaux, who is a frequent critic of the governor. “He basically left us hanging.”

The tribe also alleges that Congress is at fault for not changing the rules that allocate how money from a tribal transportation program is distributed among the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.

Semans said the program’s reliance on making determinations based on tribal enrollment hurts the Rosebud Sioux because while their enrollment of 33,210 members is relatively modest, their land base of nearly 890,000 acres spread across five counties is enormous.

That meant there simply 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 found after Christmas.

The other victim, her brother-in-law, Douglas James Dillon Sr., called for help during the first storm because his asthma was flare-up. But getting to the hospital would have meant being transported more than a quarter mile over snowbanks to an officer’s patrol car.

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

Semans and his wife, Barbara, were covered in snow for 15 days and used a propane heater to keep out the cold after a power outage. They were dug up just in time to arrive at Dillon’s funeral 11 days after his death.

“Even anger doesn’t rise to the level of neglect,” Semans said. “This was an atrocity.”

For Honor, loved as a prankster, her illness came at the worst possible time in the storm.

It was December 14, and her aunt, Brooki Whipple, with whom she spent her weekdays while she and her family lived near her school, was growing more frantic as Honor struggled to breathe.

The family called for help, and eventually a snowplow cleared a path to their ranch. Cordier-Beauvais said Honor and her uncle, Gary Whipple, immediately left for the hospital just 3 miles away.

There, Honor was diagnosed with the flu and sent home despite the fact that Cordier-Beauvais, with whom he spent weekends and summers, called and told hospital staff that the family wanted him admitted because they were worried he would return. to go out

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

“Due to the high winds,” Rosebud Sioux Tribe Highway Safety warned that day, “the plow routes are filling up quickly.”

Cordier-Beauvais, the tribe’s business manager, stayed on the phone with her worried daughter, who had given birth to a baby boy just days before, praying through the hours-long effort for help to clear the way.

But help came too late.

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

“In our Lakota way, they are brothers and sisters. Inseparable,” Cordier-Beauvais said. “She wasn’t handling it well. Of course, she is a girl and Brooki was very stressed. But she had her baby and she had to take care of them. And it was awful.”

With no change in weather, Honor was not buried for almost four weeks.

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

“Everybody misses him so much,” she said.


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

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