Tester promises help for Rocky Boy

Great Falls Tribune

by Ryan Hall

ROCKY BOY — During a tour of the flood-damaged Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., pledged to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies to help get resources to the reservation.

Tester visited sites throughout the Chippewa Cree Tribe's reservation that were damaged following last week's severe flooding. He also met with tribal and government representatives to discuss moving forward in the rebuilding process. Tester is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Homeland Security Committee, which oversees FEMA.

"The devastation a flood can cause out here is unbelievable," Tester said in a statement. "To see entire roads, homes and bridges washed away, it sticks with you. It's important for me to see this to get a real sense of how this community is impacted, and how much work we've got ahead of us."

During the tour, Tester joined three representatives from FEMA, who were on the reservation to conduct a preliminary damage assessment — the first step in possibly receiving a presidential disaster declaration. Such a declaration would open the door to additional emergency funding for the tribe to rebuild roads and damaged buildings, but Tester said he was unsure whether it would be granted.

"FEMA will make that decision. It sure looks like it (is worthy of the declaration) to me, but I'm not an expert in that area," he said in an interview Saturday.

Tribal Councilman John Houle and state Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, also joined Saturday's tour. They showed Tester where flood waters wiped away several roads and bridges, cutting off access to the tribe's only health clinic.

"They've got some real issues up there in Rocky Boy," Tester said, adding that it "kinda makes you sick" to see people not being able to get home because of washed-out roads or to see the damage to the tribe's relatively new health clinic.

"It's slipping away from itself," Tester said. "It's a beautiful building, and it's breaking apart because the soil underneath it is moving."

That kind of damage prompted Tester and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to write the Federal Highway Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Friday, urging the agencies to work to immediately distribute funds to help the tribe begin rebuilding.

Rising water also breeched the community's sewer lagoon and flooded hundreds of homes, displacing several dozen families. Earlier this week, Tester and Baucus asked FEMA to send a team to the reservation quickly in order to assess damage and respond to the flooding firsthand.

Tester said Saturday that he was "pretty darn happy" with the agency's quick response. He also praised tribal leaders for their handling of the emergency.

"There's a lot to be said about the quick response and hard work by this community," Tester said in the statement. "There's a significant human toll these floods are taking on Rocky Boy's. I'm closely following it, and we're working closely with tribal leaders and federal agencies, doing what we can to pave the way for resources to get to the people and places in need."

Belcourt said in a press release from Tester's office that he was pleased by the senator's visit. He added that without federal support for the tribe's new water pipeline "we would have had hundreds of homes without water for months."

Following his visit to Rocky Boy, Tester traveled to Billings to talk with residents about the next steps in rebuilding after last week's tornado. The Sunday storm destroyed the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark and several nearby businesses.

"We'll see how Billings has dealt with their situation," he said between stops Saturday.

One thing the two communities emerging from weather-related disasters share is a desire to quickly rebuild and recover, Tester said in the interview.

"Everybody's moving, everybody's rolled up their sleeves to do the best they can," he said.