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Did the state do enough during the June flood?

This interview originally aired on "In the Moment" on SDPB Radio.

As floodwaters slowly begin to recede in eastern South Dakota, members of SDPB's rotating panel of Dakota Political Junkies offers analysis into the state's flood response.

Seth Tupper (editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight) and Kevin Woster join the show.

Read the full article from South Dakota Searchlight.
The following transcript was auto-generated and edited for clarity.
Lori Walsh:
Let's talk about McCook Lake. And for people across the state who aren't quite sure how the rivers intersect here and what happened in the southeast corner of the state, Seth set us up with an overview of the devastation, which is unprecedented for many of these homeowners.

Seth Tupper:
As everybody knows by now, in southeastern South Dakota last week 15 or more inches of rain fell in some areas. All of that rain collected in rivers and creeks that run down to the Missouri River in the southeast corner of the state, including the Big Sioux.

And Sunday night, the Big Sioux hit a record crest as it was coming down toward McCook Lake, Dakota Dunes and North Sioux City, which are all kind of clustered together in the southeast corner of the state.

The local authorities and state and federal authorities enacted a longstanding plan to basically plug an interstate exit there and put in a temporary levee across Interstate 29 to complete a system of permanent levees that diverts water away from North Sioux City and Dakota Dunes toward McCook Lake.

But they had never done that with this much water coming down the Big Sioux. McCook Lake was absolutely devastated. The houses along the northern shore of McCook Lake were completely wiped out. We've heard reports that anywhere from a dozen to a couple dozen homes were basically ruined, gone, and other homes flooded.

People were running out of that area for their lives on Sunday night, and there were rescues happening. So it was a really, really chaotic scene there Sunday night.

Lori Walsh:
Let's talk about the governor's role and the emergency response, what some McCook Lake residents are saying.

Tell us a little bit about your reporting in South Dakota Searchlight.

Seth Tupper:
Well, my perspective on this was really informed by watching the governor's press conference on Sunday. On Sunday she was in North Sioux City and she held a press conference that she streamed live on Facebook. It was on local TV in Sioux City; it lasted about 45 minutes. She and some folks from the Army Corps of Engineers and from the state's Department of Transportation, local emergency manager and others spoke at length about what they were doing to prepare for the flood and what people should be doing.

They mentioned that Dakota Dunes had issued a voluntary evacuation order. They talked at length about that and about building the levee that I just spoke about.

But in hindsight, nobody said really anything urgent about McCook Lake or said anything to the effect that if you're in McCook Lake you might want to think about getting out. There was no explicit warning whatsoever given to the people of McCook Lake to indicate authorities were diverting that much water their way.

In fact, as I reported today in our story, Governor Noem made some comments. Somebody asked at the press conference, what should people at McCook Lake be doing?

And she said, "They should be protecting their property and maybe they'll see some water, maybe they won't, but they might."

And that was about it. And then, of course, what they saw was an absolutely catastrophic situation just hours later.

Lori Walsh:
Did she have bad or incomplete information? I mean, you have that word "should" in there. You should be protecting your personal property, which is a lot different from saying evacuate now, this is dangerous, I need you to get out.

How quickly did the information that the governor had at her fingertips change? What do you know?

Seth Tupper:
Well, it did change fast, and what happened obviously was a disaster. And of course, we'll say that up front: Hindsight is 20/20.

But the information was changing so rapidly. When she gave her press conference, she quoted a projection about when the Big Sioux River would crest and when. And after the press conference ended, I just went to the website where you can find river crest information from the National Weather Service to verify what she had said. And the forecast was completely different within 20 minutes after she had gotten done speaking.

So yes, the conditions changed very rapidly. The Big Sioux River ended up cresting seven feet over where it had ever crested before. So I guess authorities have that on their side to say, "Look, nobody could have predicted this."

But on the other hand, they already knew when they were speaking Sunday according to their rapidly outdated projections that the Big Sioux River was going to hit a record crest. And they knew that they were diverting that water toward McCook Lake. And they didn't really give a stern warning to the people of McCook Lake about those two facts that they knew.

Lori Walsh:
At that time.

Kevin Woster, tell us a little bit about a governor having a press conference, and about emergency management in general. There are lots of layers to this. It's easy to armchair quarterback this thing.

But there are certain things that we know about how these emergencies need to be communicated to people. Are you seeing anything here that is particularly worth surfacing for people today?

Kevin Woster:
Well, for one thing, I think we might as well get used to this and prepare for this because I these kinds of natural disasters are going to settle the question in some people's mind on whether climate change is real and having an impact on our lifestyle here.

Secondly, I know Governor Noem takes information from the experts and she does the best she can with that, but I think Seth has laid out why maybe it could have been handled a little better, the warnings could have been a little better.

I also think about the guy that we remember as "Mr. Disaster Response" in Bill Janklow, who was often accused of being over-the-top, of doing too much, of predicting horrible things that didn't happen and always being too involved in things.

I think Governor Noem leaves herself open to some criticism because of her schedule. Some of it was just the way it worked out, unfortunately for her, that she was in D.C. for "Meet the Press" and then back to southeast South Dakota on Sunday and then back, as I understand it, to Memphis on Sunday night for a political event there.

And you have to just kind of believe knowing the way Bill Janklow operated that whatever obligations he would've had, he would've canceled elsewhere. You couldn't have gotten him away from that disaster scene. He'd probably still be down there now. He certainly would've been there all weekend. And it's easy to say she should have done it the way Janklow did it.

She did what she could do, but I think she left herself open to a lot of second guessing on her schedule.

Lori Walsh:
I want to circle back to something that Kevin said , but I want to refer listeners to South Dakota Searchlight's reporting because Seth really does go through in the most recent piece, what time the emergency responders were going door to door, when the notifications went out on Facebook and cell phones. So I don't want to leave people with the impression that nobody was warned at any point. The timelines for those warnings are in that piece.

But in the interest of our time today, Seth, what Kevin was saying about "getting used to it" gets at the fact that this is not going to be the last flooding that we have that is "unprecedented."

There are homeowners here who are saying this mitigation plan needs to be reevaluated.

So my question to you is, Seth, what happens next? Because the mitigation plan was in place. It's designed to protect critical infrastructure downstream, but the McCook Lake residents say this is pretty devastating, we need to talk about this plan in the future.

What do you want to highlight there?

Seth Tupper:
That's an opportunity maybe for Governor Noem to step in, and I hope she does and maybe lead and encourage and facilitate a reevaluation of how floodwaters are handled down there and what the plan is. As far as I was told, this plan dates to the 1970s.

When you think about all the development, for example, in Sioux Falls that has happened since then, and land that has been converted to asphalt, and all the grassland that's been converted to cropland in southeast South Dakota, and climate change, and all the different variables to take into account now that didn't exist back in the 1970s, it does seem like that plan is long overdue for a look.

Obviously if people are going to continue to live around McCook Lake, they're going to be in harm's way if this plan stays the way it is now. So there is an opportunity for somebody to step in and lead and take a good hard look at that.

Lori Walsh:
The DNR says that that water would've ended up in McCook Lake, regardless. It was a pretty extreme event.

So to that point, we all need to be thinking about the future and what's going to happen. Any final thoughts, Kevin, that you want to leave us with today?

Kevin Woster:
Well, my first thought was that Seth said, "If people are going to live around McCook Lake ..." Is that the kind of thing we're going to be considering? Is this a harbinger of what we could be looking at in the future? Should we have people living around McCook Lake? Is that a wise thing long-term? Are things going to change enough that they'll get hit again with something like this in five or 10 or 15 or 20 years?

We'll see.

Lori Walsh:
So many questions worth exploring here, and it's all part of how state government interacts with the people in the state and that communication. Seth Tupper is editor-in-chief. Seth, thank you so much for being here with us today.

Seth Tupper:
Thanks for having me.

Lori Walsh:
And Kevin Woster, your perspective always welcome as well. Thank you.

Kevin Woster:
Good to be here.

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Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.