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50,000 People Face Humanitarian Disaster -- In South Dakota

The Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation was devastated by a snowstorm. And the government did next to nothing.

All it took was a  one-minute commentary. On February 9, 2010, Keith Olbermann told his viewers about a humanitarian crisis affecting 50,000 people. It was so bad, college basketball fans were being asked to  share their soles. "Haiti?" he asked. "South Dakota. The shoe donations are being sought at the University of South Dakota and they are for the residents of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation."

On January 21, 2010, a devastating blizzard and snowstorm hit the area, one of the poorest in the country, knocking down over 3,000 utility poles. Residents were without electricity, water or heat in subzero temperatures for weeks. The tribe declared a state of emergency. "The government has done next to nothing for the Native Americans, who on a nice, sunny spring day there still face unemployment of 85 percent," Olbermann said sternly. "Doing nothing for these people, an American tradition since at least 1776."

He then directed viewers who wanted to donate to the Countdown website, where they would find a link to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe  storm relief fund.

There were no videos or photos of the devastation. There was no interview with a tribal member. It was a one-minute commentary. According to Tribal Chairman Joe Brings Plenty, Olbermann's call for donations, coupled with community efforts and matching money from the Bush and Northwest Area Foundations, brought in $975,000. Daily Kos blogger Bill in Maryland  posted a diary with donation links for neighboring tribes.

Chairman Brings Plenty said the response was overwhelming. "It was crazy. It had a huge effect compared to what we were doing to get coverage and people in DC to take notice. The government had to take notice because of the phone calls that were coming in."

Leo Fischer, general manger of the Tri-County/Mni Waste Water System, said that after the commentary aired, his phone wouldn't stop ringing. People who saw it drove 13 hours to drop off clothes, food and bottled water. "Very few people had generators, so they had to find a spot for the bottled water so it wouldn't freeze," he said. It was that cold.

A few days after the commentary ran, Fischer went to Washington DC to meet with politicians about the tribe's ongoing water crisis and the desperate need to upgrade their water system. "The first thing they said was, 'We don't want national news on what we're discussing.' Some of the folks in DC were upset about the video. They felt they got hit pretty hard, but it sure opened a lot of eyes," he said.

"It put some of those people on notice out in DC," said Chairman Brings Plenty. "We have a treaty right to the water. It's our birthright and we can't even utilize it."

Between 30 and 50 homes on the reservation in the town of Eagle Butte still don't have running water, according to Fischer. "We have several families living under one roof here," he said. "In some cases, there are five families living in a three-bedroom house. Another problem is housing. We could build the houses, but we don't have the water to serve them. There's a waiting list of over 900 homes that could be built."

The first installment of the $450 million water project will cost about $65 million. Fischer said USDA officials offered the tribe a 25 percent loan for the first installment, but dire economic realities facing the reservation will make it difficult to pay back.

The water crisis facing the tribe goes back to 1944, when Congress authorized the Pick-Sloan Plan, a $490 million proposal to build the Missouri River dams. A total of 107 projects were approved in response to devastating floods in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.

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