Governor to request disaster declaration at Rocky Boy

Havre Daily News

by Tim Leeds

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer will request President Barack Obama to declare the flooding at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation a federal disaster, Schweitzer’s communications director said this morning.

“We are in the process of drafting (the request),” Sarah Elliot said shortly after 11 a.m. A federal team assessed the damage of the flooding late last week, and turned their findings over to the governor.

Montana’s junior U.S. senator, Jon Tester, toured Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation Saturday to see the damage caused by flooding.

The Big Sandy Democrat said once the federal assessment of damages comes in, he will work with federal agencies to get help to the area.

“The key is the assessment,” Tester said in an interview after the tour.

“Then, we need to get the money on the ground as soon as possible.” The reservation saw extensive flooding after it received four to five inches of rain in just a couple of days two weeks ago, causing water levels to rise, damaging homes, taking out roads, bridges and culverts, damaging water mains and leaving residents without drinking water, and extensively damaging a $12 million clinic built by the Chippewa Cree Tribe just a few years ago.

The damage and lack of water led to some 40 families being evacuated.

Neal Rosette, Chippewa Cree Tribal public information officer for the disaster, said this morning that the Tribe now is in recovery mode.

Some people had been brought back to their homes Saturday, although Bringing people back to 10 homes near the clinic is not yet complete, Rosette said.

Much progress has been made in draining a lake that backed up behind a road to the clinic, with the level dropped 15 feet and about 25 feet to go, he said.

The Tribe also is working to finish restoring water, including disinfecting some wells that have been contaminated, Rosette said.

Rosette said the Tribe still is finding additional damage, and is urging all Tribal members to proceed with caution.

“That road or culvert you thought was there might not be there,” he said.  Although Schweitzer cannot declare a disaster area on a sovereign Indian reservation himself nor use state disaster funds to help, some state money is going to Rocky Boy.

Marissa Kozel, spokesperson for the state Department of Commerce, said Friday that $27,500 has been authorized to be transferred to the Tribe through the Big Sky Trust Fund to help pay for engineering costs in assessing damages and $43,200 will be sent to the Tribe, through the Hill County government and administered by Bear Paw Development Corp., from the Community Development Block Grant program to help pay immediate costs.

That money could be available as early as today, she added.

Scott Sanders, external affairs officer with FEMA, said the agency worked closely with agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Indian Health Services as well as state and Tribal departments and agencies.

“I think it was a very thorough and complete assessment,” he said.

Tester saw first-hand some of the damage Saturday.  Tribal and federal officials took him around and through the clinic, which was evacuated with a temporary clinic set up in the old Tribal roads department building.  Examination rooms, a dental facility and other operations were set up by Saturday.

Two mobile examination vehicles were en route from

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to help provide medical services, Tribal officials told Tester Saturday.

John “Chance” Houle, a member of the Tribal council, complimented the employees of Rocky Boy’s health system in getting the temporary clinic up and running.

“They did a heck of a job in a limited amount of time,” he said.

Joel Ames of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed Tester that the damage is continuing.

He showed where the pavement of an access street had dropped from where he previously had marked it.

“It shows how much it is continuing to sink, even in one day,” he said.

Houle said that the water saturation is continuing to cause erosion in a wide-spread area around the clinic.

“This whole mountainside is settling,” he said.

Houle said the plan is to have the clinic moved into its old location and up and running by August, where it will operate until the new building can be repaired or replaced.

Tester said before he and Baucus can work in Congress to get funding, he has to know what needs to be done, such as with the clinic.

“There has to be a decision whether it will be rebuilt or torn down,” he said.

Ames said Saturday the agencies still were working on that.  Settling had caused cracks in the parking lots and sidewalks, caused one end of the building to settle, and caused cracks in the walls — and supporting structures — throughout all floors of the entire building.

Tester also toured the agency dam, where a new channel had been cut through a paved road to allow water to flow at a regulated amount into the reservoir behind the dam.

Tribal employees also have been working nonstop since the flooding occurred to repair road damage and create temporary access roads to locations on the reservation.

Tester said the damage appeared tremendous, but he has to wait for the official assessment from the experts to see exactly what needs to be done.

“I’m not an engineer,” Tester said.

Once the assessment comes in, he and Baucus can start working with the federal agencies and in the Senate to make sure Rocky Boy gets the help it needs, Tester said.

He added that appreciated the work the Tribal officials and employees and federal and state employees were doing to repair and assess the damage.

“It’s a Saturday afternoon, a nice day, and they are out here working their tails off,” Tester said.