Governor Kristi Noem addresses flooding concerns

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KSFY) - The Eastern side of the state has seen an array of weather conditions throughout this past year from severe storms, tornadoes, and flooding.

Governor Kristi Noem addressed South Dakotans about what she and other state leaders are doing to help those affected.

She addressed South Dakotans via an eight-minute Facebook Live video, Noem said federal disasters have been declared in 58 of 66 counties in the state and three tribal reservations

The Governor toured many affected communities the past few days and saw first hand the devastating effect the weather has had on communities across the state.

"We've had dams fail and culverts that have been blocked by floating one-ton bales of hay," Governor Noem said. "We've had sections of state highways wash away overnight, and vehicles fall into the rushing water."

According to the National Weather Service, several states, including South Dakota, have seen precipitation 400% above average during the first two weeks of September. All that precipitation caused a major interstate to close last week.

"This closure was unprecedented since President Eisenhower announced the interstate project in the 1950s," Governor Noem said. "And the major East-West artery through our state was built, it just doesn't close because of rainfall. That's not supposed to happen."

Governor Noem is now speaking with South Dakota DOT engineers so the state won't lose the interstate due to flooding again.

She has also requested $56 million in federal aid for assistance after the severe weather we've experienced this year. She has declared one federal disaster and has three additional requests pending with President Trump. She plans to request another federal disaster declaration after this most recent flooding.

The Governor says she has been questioned about the use of the National Guard. And she says there are other resources, such as, DOT trucks or inmates, that can do the job.

"From a military readiness perspective, as well as, from a cost perspective," Governor Noem said. "We must call up these soldiers when no other options are available."

At this time, a special legislative session is not needed to deal with the flooding. Governor Noem reminds citizens they do have the funding necessary to help rebuild. But, they will have some difficult decisions and discussions come January.

Her full speech is written below:

Good evening. I wanted to take a couple minutes of your time this evening to give you an update on the largest natural disaster our state has ever seen. Federal disasters have been declared in 58 of 66 counties and three tribal reservations. As South Dakotans, we are used to extreme weather. But the persistent wet weather, starting with the bomb cyclone in March and the heavy rain every few weeks since then, has created a slow-rolling natural disaster of epic proportions. Just last week, Madison received over 11 inches of rain they didn’t need. The flooding that’s followed has destroyed homes, roads, and businesses.

Montrose, Dell Rapids, Renner, Mitchell and so many other communities are experiencing many of the same issues. Some for the second time this year. We’ve had dams fail and culverts that have been blocked by floating 1-ton bales of hay. We’ve had sections of state highways wash away overnight and vehicles fall into the rushing water.

According to the National Weather Service, broad areas of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska have received precipitation amounts of more than 400 percent above normal during the first two weeks of September. The upper Missouri River basin annual runoff is forecasted to hit two times the average by the end of the year.

Last week, the State Department of Transportation closed I-90 due to flooding as well. This closure is unprecedented. Since President Eisenhower announced the interstate project in the 1950’s and the major East-West artery through our state was built, it just doesn’t close because of a rainfall. That’s not supposed to happen.

This much water, this fast can, of course be dangerous. It can injure and it can kill. And it has. Losing even one to these storms is too many. But I am thankful for our first responders and emergency management teams and their tireless efforts to keep us safe. Our city, county, and state leaders across South Dakota have moved front-line resources to where they are needed each and every time we’ve had extreme weather this year. They are some of the most selfless, hardest-working leaders in our state. Often times their homes are flooding too when the water comes. But they are in the Emergency Operations Center helping others, protecting our infrastructure, and keeping people safe.

As I have seen the devastation firsthand and talked to folks, I am getting a lot of the same questions over and over. So, let me share some of the information we have, with all of you here tonight.

First of all, disaster response begins and ends with the local response. That’s the process the federal government requires and it works well. As I mentioned, our local emergency managers know their communities like the back of their hand. So when things get bad enough to need backup, the state comes in to work with the local government. We assist to help locate resources in other communities, we provide inmates to help with filling sandbags and cleanup. We also help assess the damages and request a federal disaster declaration when needed.

We’ve had one federal disaster declared this year and three additional requests that are pending with the President, together totaling $56 million in requests so far. The flooding we’re experiencing right now will likely reach a level where I will request yet another federal disaster declaration from the President. Federal disaster dollars are never as timely as we would like, but we appreciate the responsiveness we’ve seen so far.

I also get a lot of questions about utilizing the National Guard. We’ve done that as well this year. When a rural water line washed out in a creek bed this spring and 8,000 individuals in Oglala Lakota County were without water, I ordered the National Guard to send soldiers and trucks with large freshwater tanks on them to help distribute water until the line was fixed. The decision to call up the National Guard is never an easy one. As governor, I’m committed to utilizing these citizen-soldiers judiciously. From a military readiness perspective, as well as a cost, we must call up these soldiers when no other suitable options are available. Often times other resources such as DOT trucks or inmates are a better, more affordable fit for the need.

Additionally, some have started making calls for a special session of the legislature. I do not see the need for a special session at this time. As the latest flood waters recede, I know we will find significant public infrastructure damage. Maintaining and restoring our roads and bridges is critical for commerce. Sewer systems are necessary. The restoration costs will be immense. That said, our state has the funding mechanisms in place to respond to the disasters we face. There is no doubt that we will have tough discussions and decisions about our budget come January, but I don’t see the need for any new legislation that would require a special session to date. If that changes, I will be the first to inform the public and the legislature.

I have also called for the Secretary of the Department of Transportation to work with state engineers and others to ensure that our interstates are never again closed for flooding. We just can’t have that happen. Our population is spread out. When we lose the ability to travel on interstates and major highways due to flooding, we are compounding the disaster. In the era of big data, we can and must be able to plan for the worst-case scenarios when it comes to rainfall and weather.

Finally, the question I get most often is the question that makes me so proud to be a South Dakotan. It’s a simple one: “How can I help?” Neighbors helping neighbors. It’s our history. It’s the spirit of our state. If you want to help right now, there are many resources available. There are national disaster recovery groups helping as well as local resources like 211.

Over the longer term, I have my team looking into enhancing our state disaster response portal to connect volunteers and resources with local efforts at disasters. For example, if you have a couple days of time and a chainsaw, then the goal would be to connect you to those who need help in Sioux Falls after the tornado.

The stories of neighbors helping neighbors that we hear about are amazing. After the tornado in Sioux Falls last week, I heard about a man named Mike, who spent is weekend driving around town responding to 211 requests for help and just stopping at other spots where it was obvious that a helping hand would be appreciated. He helped fix a flat tire on an old tractor that was being used for cleanup. He took loads of branches and trees to the disposal center. And he helped an older gentleman who lived in an apartment clean up in a couple hours what the man thought would take him a month. Mike helped a lot of people in one day. He wasn’t after anything for himself. He concluded his recap of the day saying, “a firm handshake and a sincere thank you is good enough.” There have been a lot of Mikes helping this year across our great state. It makes me proud of our state.

In closing, the wet weather we’ve experienced this year will set records. We are living history right now. And we’re not fully through it yet either. Forecasters are now saying that even if we have an average moisture fall and winter we could be dealing with major flooding again in the spring.

It’s tough to think about even more flooding next spring as we continue to deal with clean up right now. But like I said earlier this year, the storms are strong, but South Dakotans are stronger. We’ll get through it. We always do. We can get knocked down, but we don’t stay down. It’s in our blood. For as long as people have made their way across the plains to make South Dakota their home, we have struggled against extreme weather and a tough environment. But that’s what makes this place so special – along with the people who call it home. It takes effort to get here and to live here. You don’t just end up here. To be a South Dakotan is to be someone who consciously chooses to make this place your home and to thrive here. And I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Thanks for taking time to tune in. Stay strong. Thank you and may God bless South Dakota.