Rebuilding from the rubble

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OGLALA, S.D. - One year after a day that forever changed the lives of residents of this small community, more than 100 hundred people gathered at the Oglala pow wow grounds under dark and windy skies.

The gathering was considered wopila, a time to recognize others and give thanks, said Oglala councilman Floyd Brings Plenty. Jonas Belt, an elder of the district was the sole fatality in the June 4, 1999, tornado. Despite many injuries, a handful of them serious, most residents say it was a miracle more were not killed or seriously wounded.

A recently constructed trailer park containing 54 new, single-family mobile homes for the many left homeless by the tornado, was named in Belt's honor.

With tribal officials and a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in attendance, former tribal chairman Stanley Looking Elk welcomed the crowd and invited everyone to share in a barbecue.

Brings Plenty's family lost their home in the tornado. "I never knew what devastation looked like, until then. Right after the tornado, I was drifting in and out of consciousness. I was walking but I didn't know where I was walking.

"When I came to I was almost to the road from my home. I didn't know where I was. I went back to my house and my vision focused real sharp. I stood there and looked at my home: It was just a bunch of rubble - the whole thing was gone."

When he got back , after spending two weeks in the hospital, the whole place had been cleaned up, Brings Plenty said. He credited South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow for that.

"When I came back, my daughter and I took a drive around to see how things were. Some of those places were so cleaned up you couldn't tell there was a home there. At that time I told my daughter, 'In about a year's time we'll drive around and take a cruise again, and then you can see the change - the good and the progress that comes out of this.'

"She was pretty angry and she was crying.

"She said, 'How can anything good come out of this?'

"If you look around, you can see quite an improvement," the councilman said.

While most residents agree, the consensus is that much more remains to be done.

A state prison construction program begun by Gov. Janklow provided 20 two-bedroom homes. The Jonas Belt housing area has 54 dwellings.

On June 7, OST Vice-Chairman Wilbur Between Lodges signed a memorandum of agreement with FEMA to have 44 of those dwellings handed over to the BIA.

Brings Plenty said Pine Ridge Agency Superintendent Bob Ecoffey has "agreed in principle" to release the mobile homes to the tribe. Ten of the homes have been purchased through other channels for the families living in them.

Tribal officials say a long-term lack of housing was exacerbated the tornado in an unforeseen way. "Many of our homes had several families living in them. When those homes were destroyed by the tornado only the head families that had lease agreements were counted when it came time to assign new homes," Brings Plenty said. "We've come a long way, but this is still a major problem we need to work on."