Pine Ridge Native Speaks on the Flooding Disaster



The Pine Ridge Reservation, in southwest South Dakota, is having historic flooding. A dozen districts/towns are spread out over 3,500 square miles, making disaster relief more difficult for the Oglala Lakota government. Many residents live miles from main roads, do not have internet access, and heat their homes with wood. The Reservation’s water line broke in the flood.


Heather Waters, 35, was born and raised in Pine Ridge and in the neighboring Rosebud Reservation. She is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux and lives in Pine Ridge; her young son is an enrolled Oglala. Heather is a medic and mother of three. She, her family, and friends are pitching in to help others. She spoke to me by phone this morning.


The Common Reader: When and how did the flooding start, Heather?


Heather Waters: We’re about a week into this, when the blizzard started. Probably about the third day, it started to melt, and it just gradually got worse. We’re getting flooding from the hills, so there’s a lot of lower places with creeks that are overflowing, and our dam is full to capacity. All that run-off was going right into the school-district area. The flooding also contaminated water and broke a water line, so our major issue right now is getting clean drinking water to all the communities.


TCR: Who were the first people in distress?


HW: A lot of people in the country[side]. One of my leksis, my uncles, doesn’t have internet or anything, so he didn’t know about warnings to stay off the road. But he doesn’t have running water or electricity, so he’s like, “I’m gonna go into town,” and he got stuck in the snowstorm. It was melting, and the dirt roads were muddy and flooded-out. He got stuck eight miles off the main road. He’s diabetic, and so we were trying to make sure he was going to be okay, but it became a full-day recovery. We had plows that couldn’t even get to him. We had to take our own truck over there, and the plows just kind of left us. We started digging and were on our fourth tank of gas. We were just, like, “It’s now or never.” My boyfriend, Brandon, and my other uncle had to bring him on foot about five miles, and got in the car and brought him another two miles, but then they got stuck too and had to walk another mile to the road. We got him home safe to his daughter.


We have a dialysis patient we help every morning. Because her roads are so rutted and muddy, we have to go get her in the truck, bring her to her car that’s parked on the main road, and she can drive into town from there. As soon as we’re done with that, we go to the tribal building and start taking water to the districts that have contaminated water. Their water is actually gray right now, due to the fact that the water line busted. They got the line fixed, but since all that bacteria got into it, they have to boil their water. But even with that, the children and the elderly are getting diarrhea, so that’s causing dehydration.


Each district has a council representative, so there’s a lot of politics involved, and we try not to get into that. We just try to hear the need, and hear the ones who have fallen through the cracks, and go to them as soon as possible.


TCR: Have you seen the National Guard or any other state or federal aid?


HW: I personally haven’t seen the National Guard, but they showed up about the fourth day, fifth day, into it. Our Governor, Kristi Noem, came in with the National Guard [on Saturday] and talked to [newly-elected Tribal] President Julian Bear Runner. They didn’t put out a formal [statement] on what they were anticipating doing, but they did get water buffaloes to the CAP [Community Action Programs] office here. But a lot of people don’t have vehicles, so they missed out on that water.


Rapid City Regional Hospital, in Rapid City, South Dakota, sends LifeFlights that drop water and food to the more rural areas.


TCR: The Times reports the water is finally starting to recede, but you are expecting more flooding from snow melt. What’s everybody’s mood right now?


HW: We [the Reservation] lost four people, unfortunately, in this blizzard. It’s really a sad situation, because we haven’t been able to get proper burial for them yet; they’re still in the morgue. And that’s hard to say, because the family really wants closure.


We’re happy to see people when we deliver water, and they’re like, “Yes, thank you. They brought the water buffaloes and we weren’t able to get there.” If you do groundwork, you’re able to accomplish a lot more, because word of mouth goes a long way, and a lot of people don’t have internet access. We were able to get to a lot of children out in the country yesterday who had no drinking water. We’re anticipating another storm tonight. I was pretty grateful we got to get that dispensed before this storm hits again.


TCR: Where is the bottled water coming from?


HW: Private donations from Nebraska, from Iowa. We have a couple more trucks supposed to come in, but they’re being really discrete about it, because they got hijacked, due to the flooding in surrounding areas like Nebraska that got hit very hard as well.


TCR: You mean they got diverted, or actually hijacked?


HW: They got hijacked. They got all their stuff taken.


Most of the people helping are local. I actually met this lady, day before yesterday, over the phone, and I told her I wanted to collaborate with her in helping get to these people who have fallen through the cracks and feel forgotten, or they go to the tribal building and they’re not heard. Some of them are turned away, because it’s chaotic at the tribal building. We just let them know we’re going to try to bring some relief in.


Photo courtesy Heather Waters.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.