Obama signs aid declaration for Rocky Boy's

Great Falls Tribune

by Ryan Hall

The Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation will get additional federal funding to help recovery efforts following severe flooding last month, but exactly how much is not yet known.

President Barack Obama signed the presidential disaster declaration for Montana, singling out Hill County and the Rocky Boy's Reservation, Saturday morning, according to a release from Sen. Jon Tester's office.

The declaration means federal money will be available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit groups for emergency work and repair.

"It's a Godsend," said Neal Rosette, the Chippewa Cree Tribe's executive administrative officer. "We're an impoverished reservation and we really didn't have the resources to tackle a disaster of this magnitude. I guess now the real hard work starts."

The next stop in the process is for the affected local governments to submit a list of damages incurred from the floods, and the cost of repairing those items. The state and FEMA will then meet to evaluate those requests before federal funding is released, according to Tester's office.

"I think the big issues are basic services that are needed up there," Tester said in a phone interview on Friday, noting that "clean, potable water" is among the chief concerns on the reservation.

The Montana Democrat visited the reservation to survey the damage about two weeks ago, at which time he also met with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, who were conducting a damage assessment.

Other members of Montana's congressional delegation released statements Saturday praising the declaration.

"I'm glad President Obama responded quickly to my request and recognized the need for a disaster declaration," Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said in a statement. This storm and the resulting flooding devastated parts of Hill County and the Rocky Boy's Reservation and this decision will help them get back on their feet as quickly as possible."

"It's been a real nightmare for folks facing this disaster," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in a statement. "Today's decision clears the way for important assistance. But I know that real recovery takes a lot of teamwork and vigilance to make sure the job gets done. I will continue to push and work with partners on all levels to help the folks affected by this disaster."

Rampant flooding occurred in mid-June after more than 5 inches of rainfall. The flooding damaged the tribe's water distribution infrastructure, leaving the reservation's 3,500 to 3,700 residents without water temporarily.

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

One of the most damaged buildings on the reservation was the health clinic, built in 2004. A hillside under the west end of the clinic shifted as a result of the floodwaters, causing 20 to 25 percent of the clinic to shift as well.

According to previous statements by tribal officials, structural and geotechnical engineers will need to determine whether the facility can be repaired.

"Every member of my tribe that's living on the reservation got affected by this flood one way or another," Rosette said Saturday.

Tester said it is too early to guess at the funding level needed to help the reservation recover.

"When I was up there, the devastation was pretty widespread," he said. "It's going to require some resources, make no mistake about it."

He said the exact extent of those resources won't be known until after FEMA receives the tribe's list and starts working on the request.

"I think they are in need, it really is a crisis situation and I think now is the time to make sure we can really get the money to the ground and meet the needs of the people in Rocky Boy," Tester said.