South Dakota Gov. Daugaard active in fight against Missouri River floodwaters

Saturday, June 25, 2011 | 4:57 p.m. CDT
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard talks with National Guard soldiers patrolling a levee built to protect a part of Pierre, S.D., from rising water in the Missouri River on June 15. Daugaard has played a big role in efforts to protect three South Dakota cities from record water releases from Missouri River dams.

PIERRE, S.D. — As the tall man clad in brown shirt, blue jeans and work boots strolled down the levee built to protect nearby homes from the swollen Missouri River, two National Guard soldiers on patrol rolled up in an all-terrain vehicle to check out the intruder. They found their boss, Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

In the late afternoon sun, the governor talked with the Guard members about water levels and how the levee was holding up.

Daugaard said the frequent strolls on the levees in Pierre, Fort Pierre and Dakota Dunes helped him see for himself what was being done early in the fight to protect the cities from damaging waters. He said the on-site inspections of levees and threatened neighborhoods helped him take part in decisions made by state, federal and local officials.

"I could understand when they talked about problems," Daugaard said. "I could be a participant rather than an observer."

In the first two weeks of the flood fight, Daugaard abandoned his office in the state Capitol to spend nearly all his time in flood-threatened neighborhoods or at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Pierre, where officials from dozens of state, federal and local agencies worked to prevent flooding.

He has since scaled back time spent on the flood effort so he could attend to normal duties that had been put on hold.

The emergency started in late May, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would have to drastically increase releases from the Missouri River dams to get rid of water from record rains upstream in Montana. The agency delayed ramping up the releases about a week to provide time for building levees and give people a chance to put sandbags around their homes and move their possessions to higher grounds.

Daugaard, who had been governor just five months, took the lead in daily briefings for news organizations and the public, telling people what was being done and repeatedly urging them not to risk their lives trying to save property.

The levees so far have held, though some neighborhoods could not be protected by the structures. Some houses have been damaged by rising groundwater.

Larry Adams, 66, who lives in a low-lying area of Pierre, said the agencies did a good job getting levees built. He said he appreciated the governor's effort to tell people what was going on and warn them of the peril.

"There was no ifs, ands or buts about it. This is what he wanted, and he got it done," Adams said.

Daugaard said it didn't always seem like an easy job.

"The hardest part is probably knowing what to do all the time ... worrying that you're not acting correctly or timely, that you don't ask questions of people to the degree that helps them see what needs to be done," the governor said.

"As it turned out, in most cases we were able to see what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, and soon enough that the work got done. That's because I had a lot of help," Daugaard said, crediting his staff and Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, who was sent to Dakota Dunes to coordinate the work there.

Daugaard said he was uncertain about how many Guard troops to activate, but decided to call many to active duty and then release them once they were no longer needed.

He never regretted urging people in threatened areas to leave their homes. No one knew whether the levees would be built in time or would withstand the high water, he said.

"I didn't feel that was difficult because it reflected something that I would do myself. I was just asking people to take care of themselves and be safe," Daugaard said.

The governor said getting close to the scene has made a difference at times.

He said, for example, he noticed one day that traffic was slowing up trucks hauling dirt to build a levee in Dakota Dunes. By the next day, regular traffic had been diverted so the trucks could move faster.

Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill said the governor played a prominent role in discussions with city officials on building levees and protecting utilities. The state provided technical help when the city decided to build levees in addition to what the corps had already built, but those decisions were left up to the city, she said.

"That kept us moving, kept us focused," she said.

Fort Pierre Mayor Sam Tidball also credited the governor for help in building extra levees, getting water pumps and arranging a state loan to help the city pay its bills. Daugaard also got contractors whatever they needed to build those levees, the mayor said.

"He didn't try to tell them how to do it," Tidball said.

However, the governor often got a close look at how the levees were being built. Several times, he rode in trucks as they dumped dirt to shape the structures.

Daugaard and his wife, Linda, also let two of his staff members stay in their mansion after rising water forced them out of their apartment.

"We've got a pretty big nice house, with extra bedrooms," he joked.

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