ANTELOPE, S.D. (KELO) — On Dec. 12, OJ and Barb Semans returned to their home not knowing that they wouldn’t have the chance to leave again for several weeks.
Two weeks of blizzards, ice storms, and below-zero temperatures have swept across South Dakota since early December, and while most of the state has begun snow removal, people on the Rosebud Reservation are still in desperate need of help from state and federal agencies.
For the last 15 days, families like the Semans have been trapped inside their homes, relying on dwindling food and propane and dealing with the threat of frozen pipes.
“Well, me and my wife been in this house for 15 days and she hasn’t killed me yet. So, we’re doing good,” Semans joked to Nexstar’s KELO over the phone on Tuesday from his Rosebud home. The Rosebud Reservation is located roughly 100 miles south of Pierre along the Nebraska border. “Yeah, it’s something different that’s never happened in my lifetime. You know, to actually be snowed in, not going to the store. I mean, not going to the gas station, not going up town, not checking the mail, just here snowed in.”
Images courtesy OJ Semans
Semans said that at first, the snow fell, making the gravel road leading to the house impassable. Then, when temperatures dropped to 50 below, Semans said the snow seemed to turn into cement with 20-foot drifts surrounding their home.
“You could walk on top of it almost without leaving a footprint. That’s how hard it got,” Semans described.
One week into the storm, Semans said the propane tank ran out and their son had to walk an hour through the bitter storm to bring them more propane.
“We’ve been lucky. Our electricity only went out for a few hours and came back on. So you know, we have our food and provisions and stuff. We start the car up every day to make sure that if we ever get out, it’ll start,” Semans said.
Not all families on Rosebud have been able to access propane, though. Semans said that prior to the storm, many residents, including his son, had placed orders to stock up on propane but the storm and impassable roads have prevented orders from reaching those who need it, including Semans’ son.
The couple also found themselves without water access for some time when the pipes froze due to the cold but, luckily, they had an outdoor spigot to help them.
“I had to start, digging around in different places and I had a general area. And so, I had to dig some steps in the snow bank and then start skimming the top of it. And I finally found it. So, we were able to use our spigot to have water inside the house until last night at midnight [when our] water came back on,” Semans said.
Semans has spent most of the past two weeks working to get assistance from the Federal Emergency Maintenance Agency (FEMA).
“I consult for the tribes, so I’ve been working back and forth with FEMA emails and getting the paperwork ready. Trying to get the presidential declaration sent to the president to get some help down here,” Semans said.
So far, no emergency declaration has been approved for South Dakota or the Rosebud Reservation, records from FEMA show. When asked last week about the potential of an emergency declaration, Rosebud Sioux Tribe Emergency Manager Robert Oliver seemed uncertain, saying, “They’re all aware of it.”
Governor Kristi Noem announced late last week that the South Dakota National Guard would begin removing snow on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in conjunction with the state’s department of public safety and department of transportation.
While Semans and his wife have been able to survive 15 days with a stock of supplies, there isn’t enough to last much longer, he said. And for other people on the reservation, help is crucial.
“Monday night, we lost another individual who was stuck in White River, lived out in the country, kinda like I do. It took them a few hours to open the roads and get to his house. By the time they got there he was sick, they loaded him up and on the way back, he passed away,” Semans said.
Semans estimates that between seven and 10 people have died over the last few weeks.
“We still have people that are in dire straits and need to be rescued,” Semans said.
A lack of equipment has made the aftermath of the storm difficult to navigate, but the arrival of the National Guard has helped with removing vehicles and working on the roads, he added.
“I’m really proud of the tribe and our EPP workers that have been working, you know, 24/7. You know, some of them, it takes three hours to get a quarter mile, because that snow is so hard. So, but they’re doing it because it’s their relatives that they’re trying to get out,” Semans said.
Semans said that the sense of community has been strong because no matter where you are in that area, “It’s all family.”
He added: “We are resilient. We will keep doing what we’re doing.”