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Flooding hits South Dakota American Indian reservation hard

Water from White Clay Creek pools near the ranch of Ernie Little on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Flooding that has hit parts of the Midwest hard has nearly paralyzed a Native reservation in southwestern South Dakota, swamping roads, trapping people in homes and cutting off water supplies to thousands.

The situation on the sprawling Pine Ridge Reservation was improving, but two weeks of severe flooding could put the Oglala Sioux tribe in recovery mode for months, if not longer, and deal a serious blow to its economy, President Julian Bear Runner said.

"This is going to have a devastating effect on us, I feel," he said. "The tribe is utilizing any and all of its resources to try to help the communities that have been impacted."

The prairie reservation is roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined and is home to nearly 20,000 people, about half living in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Heavy snowfall and a rapid melt this month led to overland flooding, swollen creeks and rivers, swamped roads and broken water lines.

"Pine Ridge is like a desert when it comes to resources," said Peri Pourier, a tribal member and state representative. "We're using horses to get out to communities that are away from the main roads. We have elders out there that are just isolated."

Bear Runner, 33, said it's the worst flooding he has seen and that some tribal elders say they haven't seen so much water since they were children. He said the tribe was still on the "borderline" of emergency Tuesday with floodwaters receding, but many tribal members still don't have easy access "to pharmacies, medication, grocery stores, anything to help sustain themselves."

The tribe estimates as many as 8,000 people have had water supplies disrupted and another 2,000 have been hampered or trapped by floodwaters. Three people who suffered medical problems died before ambulances slowed by floodwaters could get to them, the tribe said, though it released no other details.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem sent National Guard soldiers to the reservation over the weekend to help distribute drinking water after floodwaters washed out a rural water source. The state also sent a water rescue team to help move some tribal residents from isolated homes.

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs also has provided manpower and equipment.

Also this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement saying it's assessing two Superfund sites in states affected by the flooding. The EPA identified the Superfund sites as the Nebraska Ordnance Plant in Mead, and the Conservation Chemical Corp. in Kansas City, Missouri. Superfund is a law that gives the EPA funding and authority to clean up contaminated sites.

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The Mead site operated as a munitions plant from 1942 to 1956 and its disposal of radioactive waste and other chemicals led to groundwater contamination. The EPA said it has not found evidence that any hazardous contaminants were released by the flooding.

The federal agency added that it will evaluate the sites further as floodwaters recede.

Flooding photos, videos

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