Past year had record number of disasters

Two days before Christmas in 2009, Gov. Mike Rounds issued a caution to South Dakotans that a fierce winter storm was about to disrupt holiday travel.

�Travel early or plan to stay home for Christmas,�� the governor urged South Dakotans at that time.

The blizzard that struck the following day closed Interstates 29 and 90 from border to border from Christmas Eve through the morning after Christmas Day. The governor requested and received a presidential disaster declaration to help the state recover.

It was the first of seven presidential disaster declarations South Dakota received during calendar year 2010. That�s a record number for the state in one 12-month period. The disasters covered a wide range of weather events, including blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes, torrential rains, destructive hail storms and wide-spread flooding. The Governor activated the State Emergency Operations Center three times. State, local and federal emergency workers and other personnel operated in response and recovery modes almost constantly from Christmas of 2009 through all of 2010.

All told, 56 of South Dakota�s 66 counties were designated in one or more of the disasters. Perkins County carried the dubious distinction of being named in four of the seven declared disasters. In addition, eight of the nine American Indian reservations in the state were named in one or more declarations. Cost of damages to public infrastructure from the seven disasters has reached $130 million.

�South Dakotans are accustomed to severe weather, whether it�s a winter blizzard, spring flood or summer rainstorm,�� Gov. Rounds said. �But since Christmas of 2009, our citizens and our emergency responders have had to cope with a remarkable run of bad weather. Working together, we�ve come through it, and I�m proud of that.��

It wasn�t always easy.

The state had barely finished digging out from the 2009 Christmas blizzard when a powerful ice storm swept through, knocking down thousands of electrical power lines and leaving thousands of South Dakotans without power for several days. Damages to public infrastructure from that storm reached more than $88 million.

As the ice and snow melted, flooding spread across a large section of eastern South Dakota. Five northeastern counties � Roberts, Marshall, Day, Brown and Spink � were particularly hard hit. Many rural roads were covered with water or washed away. Gov. Rounds ordered an emergency road stabilization program to make temporary repairs on selected roads identified as essential for emergency travel by ambulances and fire trucks. The program, never attempted before in South Dakota, cost about $8.1 million. Eligible emergency repair costs will also be reimbursed by FEMA at 75 percent.

�The goal was to make temporary, emergency repairs as a life-safety measure,�� says Kristi Turman, director of the South Dakota Office of Emergency Management. �Folks in that northeast part of South Dakota have been fighting water for several years. Without the emergency program, many residents in that area simply would not have had access to emergency services over the network of roads repaired through the governor�s program.��

The flooding wasn�t confined to the northeast by any means. Before it was over, 37 counties and four Indian reservations qualified for assistance because of damages to public infrastructure caused by flood waters.

While the state and its federal, tribal and local partners were dealing with flooding, a fast-moving winter storm in early April hit a three-county area of north central South Dakota. Power lines were knocked down and utility lines that had just been reconstructed after the January ice storm were broken.

In mid-June, tornadoes, thunderstorms and flooding struck a three-county area around Dupree, the fifth disaster of the year. Not long after that, another system of torrential rain storms overwhelmed a 12-county area in eastern South Dakota. And in late September, heavy rains caused flooding in four eastern counties and one Indian reservation.

�South Dakotans just experienced storm after storm after storm,�� Turman said. �I�ve never seen anything quite like it, and I was truly impressed with how resilient the people of South Dakota have been. They�ve experienced some heavy personal losses, and I know they are tired of these disasters. Through it all, though, they�ve never stopped working together and never stopped watching out for their neighbors. If there�s a positive to all of this, that�s it.��

Another positive outcome surely is the emphasis the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has placed on mitigation projects aimed at making it less likely future disasters would cause as much damage to public infrastructure. Rather than simply restore damaged infrastructure to the condition it was in before the event, the agency has identified and supported a number of what could be termed disaster-resistant projects.

For example, when rural electric cooperative (REC) power lines go down in a storm, it has been common practice to replace the poles and the lines. This year, FEMA, the State of South Dakota and the RECs have worked together to bury 874 miles of electrical lines instead of simply replacing the lines above ground.

That project is an example of the partnership among levels of government necessary to recover from the types of disasters experienced in South Dakota during the past year, said Federal Coordinating Officer Mark Neveau.

�Recovering from even one disaster requires a tremendous amount of hard work and coordination among first responders, local, state, tribal and federal governments,�� Neveau said. �The string of disasters this state has faced in such a short time has made that cooperation all the more critical for a successful recovery.��

Here�s a summary of the seven presidentially declared disasters in South Dakota in the last 12 months:

� Christmas blizzard, Dec. 23-27, 2009. Declared disaster included 13 counties and two Indian reservations.

� January ice storm, Jan. 20-26, 2010. Declared disaster included 29 counties and three Indian reservations.

� Early-April ice storm,  April 2, 2010. Declared disaster included three counties.

� Spring flooding, March 10-June 20. Declared disaster included 37 counties and four Indian reservations.

� Summer tornadoes and flooding, June 16-24, 2010. Declared disaster included three counties and one Indian reservation.

� Severe storms and flooding, July 21-30, 2010. Declared disaster included 12 counties.

� September flooding, Sept. 22-23, 2010. Declared disaster included four counties and one Indian reservation.

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