With a twinge of cold in her toes and a tone of concern tinted by exhaustion, Anna Halverson relayed the message: “We’re in a really extreme emergency down here.
Winter Storm Diaz blanketed the Pine Ridge Reservation in more than 30 inches of snow – incredible enough on its own – but it was amplified by intense winds that brought the area to a standstill under drifts of snow several feet high.
Halverson, who represents the Pass Creek District on the Pine Ridge Reservation, described their harrowing situation to the Journal on Thursday.
“It’s been really tough,” she said. “We don’t have the proper equipment here to handle what’s been going on. We have drifts as high as some houses that stretch 60, 70 yards at a time.”
More than 10 days since the storm began, Diaz has moved on and the skies have started to clear, but the recovery process is just beginning. Halverson didn’t get dug out of her house until eight days after the storm. Others are still trapped, reachable only by snowmobile.
It seems like every time we open the road, the snow just drifts it back over,” she said.
It’s an incredibly scary situation, she explained, as many of those snowed-in are missing dialysis treatments or dealing with other medical emergencies. One family ran out of infant formula, and spent four days drifted in before attempting to leave, Halverson said.
“We even talked about using drone drops to get the baby some Enfamil, because the baby was starving,” she said.
But Mother Nature wasn’t done yet.
If being trapped by formidable walls of ice and snow wasn’t enough, subzero temperatures, brought down by an Arctic front, took an already struggling region by the neck. Temperatures dropped into the negative teens and 20s this week, and the unkind Midwest wind shredded those figures with wind chills in the negative 40s and negative 50s.
Cold like that is deadly, just another blow to a reservation already crippled by conditions, Halverson said.
“Most of our members use wood stoves,” she said. “We’re not able to get them with deliveries because of the roads. A lot of our members across the reservation have no propane, because the propane companies can’t reach their tanks to fill. Even right now in my district, we haven’t had anybody able to deliver out to these members that have no propane since the storm started.”
Oglala-based service organization Re-Member provides firewood to families on all corners of the reservation, but the drifts of snow have rendered their wood stockpile inaccessible still – and it’ll be that way for the foreseeable future.
“Our wood pile remains inaccessible,” read a Facebook post on Dec. 20. “Our skid steer and plow are out-of-service. Given the conditions, it would be near impossible to operate our equipment and unsafe for our staff to work in the conditions we are facing. We appreciate the efforts being made by many to keep the Oyate safe during these challenging times.”
Those that can try to use electric heaters, which Halverson said isn’t keeping houses warm. Even her own furnace went out, blowing cold air in an already frigid atmosphere. She was able to travel to her mother’s house to keep her family warm.
Power went out in some places, once for 18 hours, she said. People with cars tried to use them to stay warm.
Reservation residents are resorting to last-ditch efforts to ward off the unimaginable cold.
“I’ve seen across the reservation some members were burning clothes in their wood stove because they couldn’t get access to wood,” Halverson said.
The conditions got so bad so quickly that Oglala Sioux Tribe President Frank Star Comes Out penned a proclamation declaring a state of emergency.
“These current blizzard conditions have caused closure of all BIA and tribal secondary roads on the reservation due to falling snow, high winds and snow drifts,” Star Comes Out wrote. “Such blizzard conditions pose an imminent threat to tribal government operations, to public safety and the health of tribal members who currently do not have access to medical care, such as dialysis, ambulance service for crisis intervention medical care such as heart attacks and delivering babies, and private transportation to secure food and other necessities of life.”
Halverson praised his efforts in trying to get help for the people of Pine Ridge. The exhaustion in her voice dissipated – for a brief second – calling her people “survivors.”
“We don’t live on our reservation,” she said. “We survive on our reservation. We’re in serious need of some help.”
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Thousands trapped on Pine Ridge burn clothes for warmth in wake of storm