dog on pedastal in a flood

The 100-Year Flood

Voices from the Future | Henry Red Cloud

The 100-Year Flood

The Event: In March 2019, overflowing creeks and raging riverbeds flooded the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Caused by a sudden, unusual blizzard that created snow piles as much as 5 feet high. Two days later, that snow melted, causing a 100-year flood. The water destroyed structures, homes, roadways and bridges, and the flooding stranded thousands of the reservation’s 20,000 residents in their homes and shelters for two weeks. Two lives were lost.

In early March, Lakota Sioux tribe elder Henry Red Cloud and his family returned home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after five days in an emergency shelter. He was sure the annual flooding season had passed — after all, the muddy waters had risen only knee high — and that it would be safe to return to his compound, which is comprised of five houses occupied by his and his children’s families. But this time, Red Cloud was wrong.

“It was midnight when a sudden blizzard started, and it continued until noon the next day,” Red Cloud says. “Suddenly, we got 3 to 5 feet of snow. And then, unexpectedly, the temperatures went up to 60 degrees and we had sun and clear blue skies. The snow melted, and we were surrounded by floodwaters again. The water was up to my waist. It didn’t have anywhere to go because the land was impermeably frozen. From there on, we were stranded in our house for the next 14 days.’’

Red Cloud, a direct, fifth-generation descendant of Chief Red Cloud, one of the last and most famous of the Lakota chiefs, was born and raised in Pine Ridge.
“I hadn’t experienced anything like that before,” he says. “Some days, I was able to take my kids on a flat-bottomed rubber boat to my car and drive them to school. Some days, food was supplied to us by emergency workers. All around, the dry land was covered with sticky and gummy clay mud and trailers and cars got stuck in it. It was pretty much a state of an emergency from there on.”

As a tribal elder, Red Cloud had to worry about other tribal members, too. He connected sick members with first responders and other emergency help. And it wasn’t an easy task — the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is administered by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is the size of Delaware, with vast distances and a population that is relatively scattered.

“My neighbors from 2 miles away called me,” Red Cloud says. “They needed to see a doctor because one family member had diabetes. Another neighbor had to go for a cancer treatment. I passed on the right emergency phone numbers. In two cases, help reached them too late: One elderly lady died — I still do not know from what — and a man in his 40s died of a heart attack. The emergency crew didn’t make it into his house because of the overflooded roads. And he lived only a mile from the hospital.”
More trouble followed: 500 people ran out of drinking water and some didn’t have food. An additional 1,500 tribal members were displaced in shelters.

“The National Guard came after a few days and provided them water,” Red Cloud recalls. “I lost three of my five houses during the flooding. They had to be demolished; two of them are under construction now. My main house, which needed floor insulation, was ripped off and replaced. I was able to create space for my family of 17 children and 40 grandchildren.“

After living for more than 60 years on his tribal land, he has experienced firsthand how the climate has changed, as well as the consequences of it on for natives’ lives. More than 30 years ago, Red Cloud was forced to leave his livelihood — buffalo ranching — and move on to renewable energy manufacturing.

“I had 40 buffalos, but we started to have a serious drought,” he says. “Sometimes we got too much water, and then so little that the grass didn’t even grow. Back then I started to pay attention and talk about climate change and I believe we have now reached a tipping point.”

Since 2004, Red Cloud has run a successful solar thermal systems company, Lakota Solar, with two of his sons. And since 2008, he’s also been involved in a renewable energy center, where he trains Native Americans in solar installation and support. Both centers were damaged during the flooding.

“Choosing solar was very natural,” Red Cloud says. “We Natives are very connected to the land. We embrace the sun in our language and in our culture, in our songs, dances and ceremonies. So, solar was the best fit for me to help to create and educate Natives about clean, alternative and renewable energy.”

So far, hundreds of students have gone through his training program, and some of them have started their own companies. Red Cloud’s company has manufactured almost 5,000 solar units and employs 13 workers.

“At the moment, we are still recovering from the flooding,” Red Cloud says. ”I have flood damages close to $250,000. My shop, manufacturing materials, tools, trailers and vehicles were either damaged or destroyed. This is not good, and we should do something about climate and weather. Instead of talking about building walls, we should be cleaning our waterways and building dams to avoid flooding and concentrate on renewable energy. Tribes and nations are very excited about solar power’s potential – I believe we could reach energy independence before mainstream America.”

Lately, Red Cloud has been paying tribute to his ancestors, especially to his grandfather and his teachings. Daily, Red Cloud also thinks about his wife Gloria, who gets really scared when she sees dark clouds gathering in the sky.
”She prays and walks around the house and goes into every room with burned sage to protect us from another weather disaster,” he says. “We have to start working together as a community; people have to do more for their community. Since 2000, my family has planted 140,000 ponderosa pines on our reservation. We collect the pine seeds, put them in the ground. In about two years, the tree is ready to be planted. They can grow to be 100 years old and up to 40 or 50 feet tall. My grandchildren inspire me; they are the reason I do this. They are the ones that are going to take care of this land and take renewable energy to the next level.”

— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss