02 May 2019

Yankton Sioux Tribe Flooded Basements and Health-related Risk

The following series of posts about flooding on the Yankton Sioux Reservation are coauthored and written with express permission of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

The previous post about Lake Andes described the lake on the Yankton Sioux Reservation that has overtopped its banks over a state highway and has made access to the town of Lake Andes impassable from the east. Since the writing of that piece I am told that someone came out and dumped a bunch of sandbags…

There is a community just south and east of the center of Lake Andes that is referred to as “housing” or Indian Housing. These houses are administered by the Tribal Government through the Yankton Sioux Housing, administered by the US Federal Program: Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in a subset of grants/programs Public Indian Housing, Office of Native American Programs, Indian Housing (that is a mouthful). The houses in this development are divided into old housing (26 houses) and new housing (40 houses) with a total of 66 houses. According to the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s website, there are 252 units (http://dakota57380sd.tripod.com/ystha.html) under supervision on the reservation under this office, so this community represents more than 25% of the provided housing. While I am told that no houses have been built here in more than 25 years, houses are renovated from time to time, though many stand boarded up and empty and uninhabitable.
Crumbling bike path caused by Lake Andes flood

The houses are also located just shy of the approaching new south shore of Lake Andes. Getting to the housing posed a challenge, as the flooded road has cut off easy access from Lake Andes. “A woman drove her truck out in that water yesterday,” we were told. “She didn’t make it, and she ruined her engine.” The state highway is not only flooded, but given the state of the parallel bike path just crumbling under the rising lake waters, is most likely undercut and crumbling under that moving water.

Bike Path from Housing to Lake Andes (uptown)

Flooded Highway 50/18/281 looking east and south

First, our team decided to cross through the farmer’s fields between the highway and housing. We took our bicycles. As we cut through a tribal member’s yard, a man told us that no one was crossing that way in the last day or so because the ground was too wet. We decided to test it anyway. Within about 10 minutes it became clear we were not going to be able to cross the fields. Our bikes were cemented still by the mud which has a high clay content. Our shoes were caked in the dark stuff. We retreated to the road, dug the mud out of the fenders and wheels and headed back to town to ditch the bike idea.

Outlet of aquaduct from Lake Andes
Next, we decided to borrow a truck for the dirt road. (My city car, on a previous day driving on dirt roads north of Lake Andes, ended up with a rock grinding in the wheel well, undercarriage torn off, and damaged serpentine belt, which needed to be replaced.) The road over to housing is a dirt road less than a mile south of Lake Andes that drives between farmer fields. First we stopped just across the road where the mouth of a tunnel is gushing water and a flock of pelicans, cormorants, and herons were feeding. This tunnel is said to connect the water from Lake Andes just west of the housing, run the water under the farmer’s fields between and eventually to Svatos Bay and Lake Case (aka the Missouri River). Dozens of dead sizable carp littered the area around the outlet. And one lay gasping in the field, most likely cast off from one of the pelicans. We noted the high volume of water and then continued across the road to housing. The dirt road is washboarded and potholed and we didn’t get above 25 miles per hour across the land and up the hill. I could see farmers pulling haybales in the fields and we passed a few cars coming from housing.
Pelicans flock around the lake outlet south of Lake Andes
The flooded lake across 50/18/281 has cut the community off from the town of Lake Andes where the grocery store, gas station, hardware store, lumber yard, and other services and payment offices are located. Residents and the Yankton shuttle now need to drive up over the hill on a dirt road to bypass and get into town or to their jobs at the casino. The dirt road is in bad shape as my team drove it to get into the community. “My car is getting messed up having to drive that road every time we want to get to town. And they are speculating that the other road is going to be overtopped soon,” one resident told us. There are two paved roads that connect housing to the state highway 50/18/281. The road that connects further east is still passable and gives residents access to Wagner, about 20 miles to the east and south. The road that connects to Lake Andes which is about 1 mile west and north is the one that is impassable. “Those semis keep coming through here and our roads can’t handle it. They are driving too fast too for all the kids and pets around here,” one resident said. The tractor trailers that are hauling various things are using Indian Housing roads as cut throughs to meet up with the state highways on the opposite side of the dirt road pass.

Sump Pump and flood water pools in backyards
From above the community, you can see how close the lake flood is to the houses and the standing water in the yards glints in the sun. The yards and basements of most of these houses are flooded, and the sound of sump pumps drones on and off, with the related sound of pouring water out of the hoses and pipes onto the ground. Pools of water stood in the yard. Our team spoke with some of the residents in the community about their basements and, with permission, were able to go into the basements to document the water damage and mold. We also documented the yards and the areas where the sump pump outlets drain the water.

Rigged sump pump drain with PVC and gutter to the street
flooded basement with mushrooms growing
We spoke with residents who had water in their basements as early as November and December. One family had a sick baby due to the related mold that got into the walls and floors of the house, and Indian Health Services came out with Housing to get a new sump pump and rigged piping away from the house and into the street. The piping was partial PVC piping and jointing, and partial piece of gutter, and while the basement was dry, there was still evidence of mold. That resident told us that if they did not leave the basement windows open, the smell became strong and the mold came back. They were told to bleach the walls regularly to keep out the mold, though one family member had to throw out her bed because the mold from the wall had corrupted her bed too. Bleach was not enough to keep the mold at bay.

“Everyone around here is sick. And we’ve been sick for more than a month. We think it is from what is coming up from the basements,” one resident said.

Another house we entered told us that they had mushrooms growing in their basement and when we entered the water was about 4 inches deep, even with the sump pump. One look outside at the sump pump destination told us why. The pipe was sticking out about two or three feet from the wall of the house, periodically throwing out heaps of water that created an enormous pool along the entire back of the house’s foundation. The pump was just recycling water from the basement to the backyard and to seep back in again.

Sump pump drain only a few feet from the house, pooling along the foundation and most likely seeping back into the basement.
Another few houses visited and we saw similar situations of water seeping in along the seams of the basement floor. Sump pumps piping water just out into the backyard and against house foundations, rather than being snaked away from the house with a hose or pipe. One sump pump pond formed just around the resident’s propane container, undercutting the legs.

Our guess is that this is groundwater connected with that approaching lakebed and nearby creek. Mold smattered the walls and floors and some of the possessions people left downstairs. Some of the residents are elderly and could not get the beds, bedding, blankets, and clothes out of the basement before everything was ruined with the flood water. One Elder couple put a bed in the basement on top of commodity cans. It at least kept the bed out of the water, but ultimately with the moisture that bed will need to be thrown away.

One resident said, “That water come up and I didn’t know it. My light doesn’t turn on from upstairs and I was just going down to do laundry and I stepped off that last step and was shocked to step into water!”

Mold visible along the foundation walls and the windows of one basement, and in the house above.

Another Elder said, “I don’t even go down there, I just keep the door closed. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t stand that smell!” Her basement had 1 to 3 inches of standing water even with the sump pump going.

Washers and dryers sat up on boards and were still being used in some cases. Things are soaked through and moldering including quilting supplies, regalia, photographs, family heirlooms, and other valuables.

Even with sump pumps and floor squeegies the flood doesn't stop.

We were told about the local BIA officer, one is assigned to live within each housing development, who had a whole living area built in his basement and when the flooding started, he moved out. “I think he lost everything down there.”

Basement of an Elder with mold and flood waters, and sump pump active.
When we asked what people plan to do about it, the responses were varied, but restrained. “There’s not a lot we can do,” one resident said. “We’ve asked for help, I’ve been asking since December. At first they just came out and replaced my sump pump. Then that burnt out and they came back. After that they just tell us to wait for spring clean-up to put our things outside to be collected. I don’t want to put things out now because of the rats and mice making homes in the piles.” When we asked when spring clean-up was going to happen, no date had been issued.

Our last stop was the police station and community center where we saw sandbags scattered about, some broken open. We spoke to the man on staff who told us that about 5 inches of water had come in in March, flowing under the front door and seeping in through the gymnasium. They responded by sandbagging and using a pump to eliminate the water. Since then no more water had come in. The Pow-Wow grounds are inundated just on the other side of the road from the community center. The cook-houses sitting in about a foot of water, and the old commodities house sat in water.

Cook houses out in the flood water.
Another resident mused, “This is the last push for us to move out of here. I don’t know if this community is going to survive this flood once the spring rains come. That lake just keeps creeping up.”

Flooded pow-wow grounds
As we stood at the Pow-Wow grounds we heard the sound of an 18 wheeler and looked to see a big tractor trailer coming into the community. Lifting my camera, I shot a picture and the truck stopped. A moment later it started backing out of the road. A BIA Police cruiser came snaking by the truck, but no one stopped to talk. We watched as that big truck struggled until it was turned around and headed back out onto the highway.
Semi trucks are using Indian Housing roads as a cut through to bypass flooded Highway 50/18/281

01 May 2019

Flooding in Davenport, Iowa

Image result for flooding in davenport iowa
Flooding Mississippi River busted a barrier and flooded downtown Iowa city according to this news report. Davenport is home to 100,000 people. The flood waters are said to be 6 feet deep in places.

Floods are hitting the midwest this spring, and the water is going to keep coming from snowmelt in Montana all the way down the Missouri River system, combined with potentially heavy precipitation events, the kind that are linked with climate change. The Missouri is the largest tributary to the Mississippi. The Missouri River is also the longest river in North America and the combined Missouri/Mississippi system constitutes the 4th longest river system in the world, after the Nile, Amazon, and the Yangtze. So why isn't there more attention paid to how these rivers are managed? And why are the Feds managing the river from Omaha or DC without more feedback and input from the stakeholders that live along the banks? That seems like a recipe for disaster, and in fact, it is.

A large flood situation hit Nebraska last month due nearby to where I live in part to a failed dam on the Niobrara, coupled with a decision from the US Army Corps of Engineers to allow high releases from the Gavins Point dam (Yankton, the town behind the dam was flooding from backed up Lewis and Clark Reservoir, plus heavy precipitation and snow melt (that "bomb cyclone" event). The estimated loss to farmers is devastating as numbers and dollar estimates are still rolling in about lost cattle and sanded/ruined fields, but some reports say there is more than $1billion USD in damage.

Some news articles are paying attention and one opinion piece in Bloomberg about the Missouri River speculates that the floods are less a situation driven by natural causes and more by manmade management decisions. Poor management decisions by the Federal Government rather than the stakeholders. Decisions like controlling the Missouri River for navigation, flood control, and hydropower generation in preference to listening to stakeholder input, or management that considers the natural system. There is this stretch of Missouri that runs along the Yankton Sioux Reservation called a "wild and scenic" stretch. And this stretch is in the last category of what that connotation means - it is a recreation stretch really. And the rest of the river is either bloated from being backed up behind a dam or flanked by engineered infrastructure.

Here is a digression: if middle America is in trouble, the coasts are going to feel it in the grocery stores as most of the country's cereal and wheat comes from this region, a good portion of the beef and pet food, a portion of dairy. And if California keeps seeing dry years like they did just recently, we, as a nation, are going to have to figure out how to keep feeding ourselves.

Articles abound about how the cities along the rivers in the Missouri and Mississippi systems are preparing for flood waters to rise up. Just as Gilbert Fowler White identified in his research in the 1940s, the US Government, with all these water development projects, gives people a false sense of security. And the insurance companies enable those communities to build in the floodplains. And this can spell disaster and death for middle America.

Just ask the folks in New Orleans how that infrastructure on the Mississippi is working out as they look UP at the river from Jackson Square; those who didn't leave after Katrina and those failed levees.

Or ask the Tribes whose homes were taken when the Pick-Sloane project bullied through the river valleys on the Missouri, displacing families and communities in the name of "progress".

"Progress" that is now a billion dollar operation with federal agencies using expansive budgets and employing scores of workers to "manage" the river. Keeping the USACE full of water engineers with something to do and provide US Fish and Wildlife and related scientists with a living laboratory.

Engineering massive rivers is a bad habit of those who seek control and lack acceptance of life on life's terms and nature on nature's terms.

Perhaps these floods will highlight the disparity that Native American communities face along this river system, just as the Mississippi flood in 1927 supposedly highlighted the disparity between North and South and the disgusting behavior of the white people toward the black people.

26 April 2019

Lake Andes Floods

The following series of posts about flooding on the Yankton Sioux Reservation are coauthored and written with express permission of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

Figure 1 Lake Andes on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is flooded and the crossroads are out. Photograph credit: Jennifer Veilleux

In March, a weather event referred to as a bomb cyclone flooded the Midwest leaving people stranded, devastating farms and livestock, and destroyed infrastructure. The punctuated precipitation and melt knocked the Niobrara, Platte, and Missouri, and a number of other minor waterways, out of their banks. The devastation that resulted included loss of livestock, human casualties, inundated fields, and destroyed roads, dams, and bridges. Damaged infrastructure continues to limit movement and community connectivity to services, work, stores, and each other. Visible destruction in the more populated areas associated with these rivers was featured in the news, along with links to climate change, and speculation about the management of the Missouri River. Stories of how this event impacted Tribal communities remains sparse. Impact on the Tribes is particularly important because indigenous populations that experience economic and political disparity (as demonstrated in county maps of economic disparity between individuals and households identifying as Native American and individuals and households identifying as Caucasian non-Hispanic that Dr. Candice Landry and I created in 2016) are experiencing compromised services, complicated and inadequate emergency response, stifled communications, and disrupted transportation from the flooding that can continue for months or even years after a natural disaster hits, and after similar issues in non-Native communities gets resolved.

This post, and the posts to follow will be about one such tribal community that lives and works on the banks of the Missouri River in southeast South Dakota.

Figure 2 Lake Andes on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is managed by US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of the Interior. © 2019 Jennifer Veilleux

Lake Andes is a freshwater lake within Ihanktonwan Territory (the land of the friendly people) otherwise known as the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Reservation in South Dakota. There are mixed communities of Dakota and non-Native people living on the lakeshore and near to the lake in the town of Lake Andes (population 819 by the sign). To explain why there are non-Natives who own land within tribal boundaries is to get into a history of treaty violating legislation approved by the US Congress since the 1850s that promotes occupation of farm- and ranch-land by non-Natives in order to erase and assimilate the indigenous people, their culture and lifeways, and replace with the Euro-centric idea of land and water use and management. For the purposes of this article, this is a simplified description of a complicated and violent theory of settler-colonialism that continues today. The local word for this genocidal occupation is referred to as allotments (Dawes Act) resulting in checkboarding, because the land was carved up, and allocated, in squares, which, on a map, look like a checkerboard. (More about this ugly history can be found online and through journal articles by indigenous scholars using these key terms.) This digression is to say that while the lake occurs within the Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation, jurisdictions, responsibilities, economic investment, and communities are diverse, overlap, and can be confusing.

Figure 3 Road Closed signs dot the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Reservation, such as on state highway 18 above, limiting access to the town of Lake Andes indefinitely. Photograph credit: Jennifer Veilleux

Driving into the town of Lake Andes on state highway 18/281, one is confronted with a sign that states Road Closed. Just beyond the sign, it is possible to see that Lake Andes has overtopped the road for such a distance that chancing the drive would be foolish. The water flows quite actively out of the lake, over the road, and into a gully, and against a housing development, locally called Indian Housing or just 'housing', where families are experiencing flooded basements and yards. There is tell of an old manmade tunnel that is meant to funnel water miles away to the Missouri River and I visited the outlet of that tunnel, a metal pipe about 5 feet in diameter, on the other side of Lake Andes where scores of fishing birds including pelicans, cormorants, egrets, ducks, and even a few great blue herons are fishing in the turbulent waters. Corpses of large fish dot the dirt road where either the water overtopped and left them stranded or pelicans decided they were no good for eating and dropped them. The history of the lake management is complicated, somehow involving the State of South Dakota and the Tribe, but today the lake is managed as a wildlife refuge by the US Fish and Wildlife Services under the Department of Interior. The management and authority responsible for that tunnel as an outlet for the lake to the Missouri is more unclear.

Figure 4 Local playground on the shore of Lake Andes within the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Reservation is underwater. © 2019 Jennifer Veilleux

A drive along the west side of the lake you encounter an inundated playground and turning north, there are two impassable dirt roads built across the lake. If you want to get around the flooding, there are poorly maintained dirt roads up over the hills, and cars like mine get their undercarriages torn up making the drive. The tribal transportation still shuttles the casino employees, but service is limited by the detours. And there is as of yet no visible solution to the flooding, no sandbagging, no crews out working to dam the water. When the water recedes the erosion and subsidence shifting to the infrastructure will have be assessed. In fact, on a walk out along the sidewalk/bikepath that leads along the highway out to housing today, before the pavement disappears under the water it is clear to see that the whole thing is undercut and is crumbling. This sort of destruction is already visible in other areas across the reservation where the water and ice destabilized bridges and shifted or wrecked roadways. Roads are currently impassable, bridges are unsound, and people are having to detour tens of miles to get to work, to the doctor, to stores and food. Road closed signs dot the landscape across the Reservation. 

The next post will feature damage from flooding to people's personal property and why that is different in Indian Country.