by Michelle DeRusha
“Our people are hurting right now,” said Dayla Picotte, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe (also known as the Ihanktonwan). Severe flooding in the spring, compounded by storms and more flooding in the fall, resulted in dire conditions in the reservation town of Lake Andes which borders a lake by the same name.
“Homes are underwater, foundations have crumbled, and there’s only one accessible road in and out of the reservation. There’s mud and mold everywhere, and mushrooms are literally growing out of damp walls,” said A/Captain Debbi Middendorp, Mitchell, S.D., corps officer with her husband, Bill. “Most of the kids we’ve seen on the reservation are barefoot because they are trying to keep their one pair of shoes clean for school, and many are being bullied by classmates because their clothes smell like mold.”
According to A/Captain Debbi, a history of negative experiences and lack of assistance from the government and other agencies have left tribal leaders suspicious of outside intervention and promises of help. The Middendorps, who were appointed to Mitchell in July, are working to build trust with the Ihanktonwan. They drove a two-hour circuitous route from the corps to the reservation, detouring around closed roads and highways, to deliver hot meals to those impacted by the flooding. They also brought soap, detergent, shampoo, cots, blankets and pillows for the shelter that has been set up in the community center.
“We want to do this right,” said A/Captain Bill. “The people here feel overlooked and ignored. There’s a long history of disappointment and frustration.” In addition to providing food and flood-relief supplies, the officers helped residents with sandbagging to protect homes and property from encroaching water and entertained children while their parents were busy with clean-up efforts.
Officers from Rapid City, Huron and Western Divisional Headquarters in Omaha traveled to Mitchell to assist with flood-relief efforts. In addition to serving 125 meals a day on the reservation, they also helped residents impacted by flooding in the towns of Mitchell, Mount Vernon, Spencer and Paulson, as well as members of the Hutterite colony near Mitchell. During the first week of disaster relief, officers, staff and volunteers served more than 1,200 meals and 2,500 drinks and distributed 330 flood clean-up kits.
Although the 14-hour days were exhausting, A/Captains Bill and Debbi are grateful for a silver lining. “Without the flood, we would not have gotten to know any of the Ihanktonwan people,” said Captain Debbi. “It’s a ministry of presence. We’re glad to be able to be there.”