Chippewa Cree leader on flooding: ‘We’re out of crisis mode’

By Matt Volz
Helena, Montana (AP) June 2010

Flood waters started to recede and the Rocky Boy’s Reservation was “out of crisis mode” June 23, the tribe’s chairman said.

A dam that had threatened to overflow was slowly being drained and workers have installed a culvert across a flooded road that cut off the reservation’s health clinic. The 38 families forced to evacuate their homes downstream of the dam were expected to return within days, Chippewa Cree tribal leaders said.

“We’re out of a crisis mode and more into a recovery mode. We’ve kind of got a handle on things,” Chippewa Cree Chairman Jake Parker said.

The flooding, resulting from more than 4 inches of rain since June 17, made several roads impassable, forced the relocation of the health clinic and left more than 200 homes without drinking water for a period of time and about 500 housing units with water damage.

The Montana Disaster and Emergency Services said 47 families had been displaced, most due to lack of drinking water.

Water service was expected to be restored to most homes, though residents have been ordered not to drink the water once it’s back on, said Neil Rosette, the tribe’s executive administrative officer. Emergency workers had been delivering cases of bottled water to each home, he said.

The ground remained saturated and even though the water has started to recede, new springs have appeared and were filling basements and crawl spaces in homes with water, Rosette said.

“The rain may have stopped, but the water flowing from under the ground up to the surface hasn’t stopped,” Rosette said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve turned a corner, but we’re getting to a point where it’s getting manageable.”

The flood could be financially crippling to the tribe, one of the smallest and poorest in the state, leaders said. The reservation in north-central Montana is home to about 3,100 of the tribe’s 5,600 enrolled members, according to the tribe

“There is so much of the reservation that is affected. I’m devastated, the council is devastated. It’s a major blow to us,” Parker said.

He led Gov. Brian Schweitzer on a tour of the damage, and said he is counting on Schweitzer to pave the way for the tribe to receive federal assistance.

Schweitzer’s office released a statement Wednesday afternoon that said the governor has requested the Federal Emergency Management Agency conduct a preliminary damage assessment. A team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had already been expected to arrive on Wednesday.

Once the assessment is complete, the governor will know whether a disaster declaration is necessary, state Disaster and Emergency Services spokeswoman Monique Lay said.

The American Red Cross has set up a shelter with beds and showers, though none of the evacuees have slept there, spokesman Rod Kopp said.

Red Cross workers were waiting for the tribe to request further assistance, which Kopp said could come in the form of home cleanup kits, debit cards for groceries and clothing, an emergency response vehicle to provide meals and bottled water.

“We have somebody who’s basically on the ground,” Kopp said. “In a case like this where a tribal government is in charge, we respond at the request of the tribal authority.”

Rosette said the tribe would look for aid from every agency that offers it.