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South Dakota tribe: Storm deaths 'could have been prevented'

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

The asthmatic 12-year-old's worried aunt and uncle begged for help clearing a path to their cattle ranch near the community of Two Strike as his condition worsened, his fragile lungs fighting a massive infection. But when an ambulance finally managed to get through, Honor's uncle already was performing CPR, said his grandmother, Rose Cordier-Beauvais.

Winter Storm Tribe Overwhelmed

Honor Beauvais died last month as a snowstorm battered the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota when an ambulance couldn’t get to him in time. He was asthmatic and had influenza.

Honor, whose Lakota name is Yuonihan Ihanble, was pronounced dead last month at the Indian Health Service’s hospital on the reservation, one of six deaths that tribal leaders say "could have been prevented" if not for a series of systemic failures. Targets of the frustration include Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, the U.S. Congress, the Indian Health Service and even — for some — the tribe itself.

“We were all just in shock,” said Cordier-Beauvais, who recalled that when the snow finally cleared enough to hold the funeral, the family gave out toys to other children as a symbol of how he 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 seeking a presidential disaster declaration.

The letter described the situation on the reservation in a remote area on the state's far southern border with Nebraska, 130 miles southeast of Rapid City, as a “catastrophe."

And in a scathing State of the Tribes address delivered Jan. 12 in the state Legislature, Peter Lengkeek, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, accused emergency services of being “slow to react" as tribes struggled to clear the snow, with many using what he described as “outdated equipment and dilapidated resources."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 didn't immediately return email messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Noem, who is seen as a potential contender for the 2024 White House, declared an 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 was worn out from a series of storms starting about 10 days before that were so severe that its leaders ultimately rented two helicopters to drop food to remote locations and rescue the stranded.

Winter Storm Tribe Overwhelmed

A South Dakota state snow plow clears a shoulder on Dec. 15, 2022, along Highway 50 on the north edge of Yankton, S.D.

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It all started on Dec. 12, when the tribe shut down offices so people could prepare for the first onslaught. The storm hit in earnest around midnight, dumping an average of nearly 2 feet of snow on the reservation, most of it in the first day, said Alex Lamers, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

By the time the storm let up on Dec. 16, the reservation also was coated with one-quarter of an inch of ice and wind gusts as high as 55 mph had blown the snow into drifts of up to 25 feet.

Starting on Dec. 18, soon after the blizzard moved out, there were 11 straight days with sub-zero temperatures. Wind chills were dangerous, hitting -51 degrees Fahrenheit at their lowest. 

Then a phenomenon called a ground blizzard hit the reservation on Dec. 22. Strong winds blew existing snow on the ground, and visibility fell to a quarter mile, Lamers said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs sent staff to help, and the White House said FEMA also spoke to the tribe's president. But snowplows were paralyzed in the cold, with the freezing temperatures turning the diesel fuel and hydraulics into gel, the tribe said.

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

OJ Semans, a consultant for the tribe, said the program's reliance on making determinations based on tribal enrollment hurts the Rosebud Sioux because while its enrollment of 33,210 members is relatively modest, its land base of nearly 890,000 acres spread across five counties is massive.

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, his brother-in-law, Douglas James Dillon Sr., called for help during the first storm because his asthma was flaring up. But getting to the hospital would have meant being carried more than a quarter of a mile over snowbanks to a deputy's patrol car.

Semans said a glimpse outside showed it was “almost impossible," so Dillon went to bed. He died Dec. 17 at the age of 59.

Semans and his wife, Barbara, were snowed in for 15 days, using a propane space heater to ward off the cold after losing power. They were dug out just in time to make it to Dillon's funeral 11 days after his death.

“Even angry doesn’t reach the level of the neglect," Semans said. “This was an atrocity.”

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