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Montana Indian reservation gets help to dig out after flood

August 7th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Michael Doxey

USU JCOM senior Mike Doxey is a member of the U.S. Air Force’s 446 Aerospace Medicine Squadron, based at Lewis-McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash. In June, Doxey’s unit was activated to provide relief after flooding at the Chippewa Cree Rocky Boy Indian Reservation near Havre in far-northern Montana.

ROCKY BOY RESERVATION, Montana—Thick mud, ruined homes, clear skies and high running water greeted us when we arrived at the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in northern Montana, 40 miles from the Canadian border.

The small community bustled with movement. Members of the Chippewa Cree Tribe dressed in orange vests and carrying radios used their pickup trucks as roadblocks to direct traffic. Emergency vehicles blocked access to impassable roads.

Members of the 446 AMDS based out of McChord AFB Washington had come to Rocky Boy Indian Reservation on a humanitarian mission to assist the people in a medical capacity; we arrived in time for the last rainstorm of the many that had caused extensive flooding.

We pulled into the elementary school and were greeted by Chippewas on ATVs, who shuttled us to the most devastated site on the reservation, the fairly new medical clinic. At first look, it was difficult to see that there was any damage to the clinic at all; upon closer inspection the damage was evident. About 25 percent of the clinic was shifting and separating from the remainder of the structure.

In the clinic, teams of people rushed through the hallways moving furniture and equipment from the damaged portion of the clinic to stable ground. For several hours as the building groaned and settled into the softened ground, we worked moving medical equipment that we intended to use to treat the injured.

But before we could move everything out of the damaged portion of the building, men in vests came running down the hall yelling, “Get out of the building now! There is a gas leak!”

We promptly left the building and regrouped outside. The next step was to figure out how to fulfill the medical mission that we had come to complete without a medical clinic.

Neal Rossete, the tribe’s public information officer, said, “It’s just too unsafe to let anybody in there,” speculating that the clinic was beyond repair.

The damage caused by the flood included 3,500 to 3,700 homes without water because of damage to the community’s water system.

“About 50 families were originally displaced from their homes by the flooding,” said Montana Disaster and Emergency Services spokeswoman Monique Lay, “and an initial assessment by federal, state and tribal officials put the total damage at around $6 million.”

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer asked President Barak Obama for a disaster declaration, which could provide millions of dollars for the community to rebuild. Lay said that while the disaster declaration would cover public buildings and infrastructure, there was not enough flood damage to privately owned homes to meet the threshold for individual assistance from the federal government.

Federal aid would have provided for temporary housing and repairs to private homes. The damage assessment concluded that only two homes received major damage, 71 were “affected,” nine homes had minor damage, and 12 homes were inaccessible and could not be assessed, reporting minimal damage.

But the floods were far from minimal to local residents. “It may not be a big deal to other people,” said Darla Turner, “but this flooding is like Hurricane Katrina for us.”

Despite the devastation that many members of the tribal nation experienced, they held their annual Sundance, a sacred ritual to the Chippewa Cree Tribe.

Even though his home had been submerged, resident John Mitchell said, ”There are a lot of good things going on, and people are trying to keep their humor about us.”

“We’re a pretty strong community when we need to be.”

TP

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