OKREEK, S.D. (KELO) — Katari Wilson and her husband Austin live in rural Okreek with their 7-year-old daughter. Tuesday, Dec. 20 marked day eight of them being snowed in at their house. Tuesday morning, plows finally broke through.

“Our drifts are probably about 10-15 feet here,” Wilson said, noting that they’d received at least three feet of snow. “It’s pretty extreme.”

Wilson has lived in the Okreek area for over 30 years. She says snow in this quantity is rare.

“I do remember some pretty bad storms when we were little, but never nothing like this,” she said. “This is the longest I’ve ever been stuck.”

On Sunday, Dec. 18, Wilson and her husband had a harrowing experience.

“My husband, he took off walking the other day because I had a really really bad tooth ache,” Wilson began. “He needed to get me some medicine. They kept telling us ‘We’re sending plows, we’re sending plows,’ — the plow was unfortunately stuck about a mile and a half away from our house.”

Dirt road to the Wilsons’ home where the plow was stuck

Wilson was in excruciating pain from her tooth ache, but that was not the end of the family’s issues. “We ran out of toilet paper, we ran out of food — we had planned for five days — we ran out so it was either he get out that day to get us supplies or we would have ran out of everything.”

The plan was for Austin to walk to the highway, where his grandparents would meet him in a car and drive him into town for supplies, then drop him back off for the walk back.

“Where we live at is where my mom grew up when she was little, and she said when the storms were this bad, they used to walk through the fields, and so she kinda told me where he could walk so that it wouldn’t be such a long walk for him,” Wilson explained.

The walk that Austin made to the highway was a full two miles one way through waist deep snow, quite literally up a hill in each direction, as he first had to go down a hill then up another to reach the road.

Snow outside of Wilson’s house

The initial leg of the plan worked out well. Austin made the trek, met up with the car and made it to town. This is where things began to go awry.

“My husband loves me with all his heart and he didn’t want to see me in pain — he told me ‘I’m walking home. I’m making it home tonight,’.”

Katari Wilson

“When he got to town — the grocery stores were completely bare,” Wilson said. “He went to three different stores and was able to get some of our supplies. Unfortunately, he didn’t find any medication for me until the very last stop he made.”

By the time her husband made it back to the side of the highway to begin his walk home, night had fallen and the temperature was resting at -1° F.

“I was trying to tell him to just stay in town, but — my husband loves me with all his heart and he didn’t want to see me in pain — he told me ‘I’m walking home. I’m making it home tonight,'” Wilson said.

Austin began his walk back, hauling a sled loaded with around 80 lbs of supplies. “My husband is about 160 lbs,” said Wilson. “It was a really long trek for him with all of that.”

Wilson says her husband called her during this walk back. “He told me he was 100 yards away from where he had started and he said he was really tired, and he was cold,” she recounted.

Austin was walking in the freezing darkness with only his phone for light, struggling to find his tracks from earlier in the day to guide him back home. He found them and told his wife that he would call her back.

“About a half-hour later he calls me back and he was in panic mode,” says Wilson. “He was tired, he was completely soaked because by then it was like sleet coming down — frozen fog — it was kind of snowing and he was soaked.”

Wilson remembers hearing the panic in her husband’s voice as he told her that he was about to give up. “And so, I started panicking,” she said. “I was telling him ‘please,’ you know ‘just turn around — I’ll have somebody pick you up,’ — He said ‘I’m already too far away to stop.’ He said, ‘I’m coming home,’. About that time he said, ‘There’s something wrong with my phone.'”

Then the call dropped.

Austin’s phone, his sole source of light and contact with his wife, had fallen to 2% battery while he walked through the snow and freezing fog. It died.

Wilson tried to call her husband back, but it was hopeless. Instead, she called her neighbor who lives just over the hill. “They live at the beginning of our dirt road, and it was plowed out — so she went and found his tracks — her and her cousin — and they followed his tracks, and her dad, who is [Rosebud Tribal] Chief of Police Steve Denoyer — him and his wife called me and asked me what was going on,” she said.

Wilson says that she gave Denoyer all the information she knew about where she thought her husband now was and when she had last spoken to him.

Denoyer contacted emergency services to get an ambulance to come as close to the Wilson’s home as possible with the closed roads, and also contacted people who could set out on snowmobiles to search for Austin. Denoyer himself, living nearby, also suited up in his winter gear and set out to follow Austin’s tracks.

Wilson decided she too could no longer simply wait. Without proper winter gear of her own (she’d lent her gloves to her husband for his walk) she piled on layers and set out into the darkness alone.

“I went outside and I was screaming for him and hollering for him,” Wilson described.

Then she heard him.

“I called my friend who was following his tracks and told her ‘I can hear him.’ I said ‘I don’t know how far away he is, but I can hear him,'” Wilson remembers saying. She told her neighbor that she and her cousin could turn back if they wanted.

The neighbor and her cousin, who also were not wearing appropriate gear, did turn around, but Denoyer, fully suited up, continued to follow Austin’s tracks.

“We live on a hill,” said Wilson, describing the lay of the land. “So [Austin] was having to walk down a hill and then back up a hill to come to our house.” She says Denoyer was intent on making sure Austin made it the whole way.

Eventually, Wilson and her husband saw each other. “He was coming and he was crawling,” she said. “He crawled all the way up the hill and…,” Wilson paused momentarily, “He was really confused and disoriented. I was trying to make him stand up, but he couldn’t even stand up.”

Despite his depleted state, Austin was still pulling the sled, dragging it up the hill behind him as he crawled through waist-deep snow.

“I grabbed the sled and I pulled the sled the rest of the way, and just the probably hundred yards I walked — I was completely tired by the time I got back to my house,” said Wilson.

Austin meanwhile crawled and rolled the rest of the way through the snow to the house, at which point he was able to rise to his feet and be helped inside by his wife; home, but not yet out of the woods.

“Once he got inside, we started taking his layers off, and the moment he sat down he started falling asleep,” said Wilson.

At this point, Wilson was still in contact with her neighbor, who was friends with a nurse. “She was telling us ‘You need to keep him awake and get him warm,’ — she was coaching me what to do — at that time the ambulance had still not arrived down the road.”

Once the ambulance did reach the road, the emergency crew rendezvoused with the snowmobilers, who then headed to the house. On the way, Wilson said one of the snowmobiles wrecked, the driver breaking his ankle. Nevertheless, they continued on, arriving at the house.

“They got my husband and they took him to the EMTs that were waiting on the hill,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s husband is now fine. We could hear him from time to time throughout the interview, chiming in from off-screen with a detail or correction. Wilson tells us he may have some damage to his sinuses, but that he is alive. “I’m very thankful for that,” she sighed, her voice full of emotion. “That was the most scariest thing that I ever went through.”

This harrowing experience now at an end, the Wilsons were still not through their trial however. That was Sunday. They ran out of propane on Monday.

“We’re evacuating, and that’s the reason that they got us plowed out,” said Wilson

Wilson is thankful for the people who make up her community — for Denoyer, for her neighbor and her cousin, for the EMTs and for the community members who set out on snowmobiles into frigid darkness for her family.

“We’re one of the smallest communities here on the Rosebud Reservation,” Wilson said. “I hate to say it but we’re the forgotten community. We’re always the last ones to get plowed out. We’re always the last ones that they think of.”

With Kristi Noem too, she has been no help — That’s one of my biggest questions — why isn’t she helping us? She’s our Governor.”

Katari Wilson

Because of the small size of their community, Wilson says the people of Okreek have had to band together. “This is a big thanks to community members, not the Tribe,” she said, noting that her dad, and a cousin working for a road department, were able to get a plow to their house.

Wilson’s expressed frustration with what she saw as a lack of preparedness on the part of the Tribe. She acknowledged that the storm brought in much more snow than is typical, but “there just should’ve been a better process in place — we knew how bad it was going to be — there should have been better emergency planning.”

Wilson’s ire is not solely reserved for the tribal government, however. “With Kristi Noem too, she has been no help,” she said with a shake of her head. “That’s one of my biggest questions — why isn’t she helping us? She’s our Governor.”

On Monday, KELOLAND News reached out to Noem’s office to ask about the status of a request for a disaster declaration sent to Pierre by RST President Scott Herman. We received no response, and no declaration was made.

On Tuesday morning, we again emailed Noem’s office, asking again about the status of a declaration, and about what steps her office is taking to address the situation on the Rosebud Reservation. At the time of publishing, we have received no response.

Noem has not publicly addressed the situation in Rosebud, though she has been active on social media in recent days, posting birthday wishes and family news, as well as photos of her office Christmas tree on Facebook, and Tweeting about the reopening of I-90, SDSU football, and her TikTok ban.

On Monday, Rosebud officials told KELOLAND News that they had recorded five deaths, and that they had over 100 families without heat because of a lack of propane.

“Why isn’t she helping us,” Wilson repeated.

While the Governor’s Office has been silent on this issue, the Department of Public Safety issued a release Tuesday afternoon, outlining the resources they have provided to South Dakota Tribes so far.

With the road now open, Wilson and her family have been advised by their Community Representative, Community Chair and Fire Chief to leave their heatless home in advance of the bitter cold that is incoming, with wind chills projected to dive far below zero later in the week.

Having only electric and kerosene heaters for warmth, which on Tuesday had their house sitting just below 70° F, Wilson and her family will head to her parent’s house in Mission. “When I first woke up, it was at 50°,” she said.

Okreek is on the list to get propane delivered on Wednesday, but due to the volume of demand, Wilson is unsure if they will get their refill this week.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe itself is seeking assistance in lieu of help from the state, sharing a fundraising post on its communications page.

The Tribe has also collected links for those looking to provide assistance.