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South Dakota Tribes Cope with Blizzard, Depleted LIHEAP Funds

December 31 - Fuel trucks were slowly delivering small amounts of propane Wednesday to homes of low-income families on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, even though the Oglala Sioux Tribe has already disbursed most of the $1.6 million in federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program funds it got this fiscal year.

With its LIHEAP funds depleted, the tribe's housing authority was covering the costs of emergency propane deliveries to customers without financial resources, in the wake of a Christmas blizzard that immobilized the reservation with three feet of snow, according to OST President Theresa Two Bulls.

"Propane deliveries are going slow. We're not completely plowed out yet," Two Bulls said. "We're trying to deliver propane to everybody that doesn't have it, and we're delivering firewood as we have it."

Lakota Plains Propane in Pine Ridge had seven trucks out Wednesday, but its delivery efforts often were slowed by unplowed trails leading into snowbound rural homes. Most of Wednesday's deliveries were for the minimum order of $120, which, at $1.95 per gallon, buys enough propane to fill about one-quarter of a 200-gallon tank.

OST got $1,628,085 in federal LIHEAP funds for FY 2010 and has received $1,221,064 of that amount to date, according to state officials. On Wednesday, tribal LIEAP coordinator Denise Red Owl could not provide total disbursements to date or numbers of households served through her office this year.

An October donation of $100,000 from the Black Hills Area Community Foundation for energy assistance has also been spent, and Red Owl said she expects a sizable donation from the Venezuela-based Citgo will arrive in February or March.

Wayne Sterkel, general manager of Lacreek Electric Association in Martin, which provides electricity to much of the reservation, said none of its customers remained without electricity as of Dec. 30. Areas east of Wanblee and south of Martin experienced outages Dec. 22, but the Christmas blizzard resulted in only small outages to a few individual homes. Sterkel expects that customers will see big increases in their December electric bills as a result of the storm, since many people rely on electric space heaters once propane tanks are empty.

Rumors that Lacreek was shutting off power for non-payment of bills are not true, Sterkel and Two Bulls said.

OST workers also delivered free firewood that was cut by crews from the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression. The South Dakota National Guard delivered six 20-ton truck loads of firewood to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations after the blizzard.

National Guard troops, along with county highway staffers from Fall River and Custer counties, were part of the state Office of Emergency Management crews sent to clear reservation roads Monday and Tuesday.

Two Bulls thanked the county crews for their assistance but was disappointed they didn't stay longer.

Emergency Management incident commander Mike Carter of Custer County said crews from the two counties were able to accomplish the majority of their objectives in the "real problematic areas within 48 hours." He estimated his crews cleared about 300 miles of main roadways — paved and unpaved — on Pine Ridge while OST Transportation crews focused on driveways and trails leading to individual homes.

Fall River County sent five men plus a road grader and a loader. Custer County sent about seven men, Carter said, along with four blades, a loader, a backhoe, a semitrailer and six pickups.

Speaking to the reservation by KILI Radio on Wednesday, Two Bulls and Monica Terkildsen of the tribe's emergency services office urged residents who live in isolated rural areas to be prepared for severe winter storms.