Disaster preparedness; Gila River does best planning for the worst

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SACATON, Ariz. - Tim Sanders is in the emergency business. His job is to
think about what could go wrong at a holiday picnic on a perfect day in
spring. As he put it, "We're like the insurance policy that sits in the
back of the drawer until the bad stuff happens."

Late summer is the season for monsoon rains and flash flooding in
south-central Arizona, where Sanders lives. His employer, the Gila River
Indian Community, can count on monsoon damage every year. But that doesn't
mean they've always been ready for it.

Ten years ago, when Sanders arrived in the community, emergency management
was a part of "other duties as assigned" in the Department of Environmental
Health. In 1997, all that changed.

A recycling company had stored millions of shredded tires on a reservation
industrial park, and, one smoldering day in August, somebody set them on
fire.

"It was a huge event. Smoke plumes settled down in the Blackwater
community. We had to evacuate 350 or 400 people," recalled Sanders by
telephone from his office in Sacaton.

Lacking any coherent response plan, they were ineligible for state and
federal emergency money. The blaze, which took seven days to extinguish,
ended up costing the community $1 million.

No sooner was the fire put out than the floods came. Inside of a month,
three severe monsoons struck, one destroying more than a dozen houses. Gila
River Community, with a population of 15,000, was sent reeling.

Gov. Mary Thomas recognized that if the Akimel O'odham (Pima) and Pee-Posh
(Maricopa) people of Gila River were going to maintain sovereignty, they
needed a detailed public emergency program. Tribal government assigned
Sanders the daunting task of drafting one. The following year, the
community council endorsed the plan - and now funds emergency management to
the tune of $1.2 million a year, not counting money for police, fire and
other services.

Sanders, a registered environmental health specialist and a native of
Kentucky, had developed an emergency plan for a large chemical
manufacturing plant before arriving at Gila River. Once the council offered
its blessings, he began educating tribal staff and looking for partners in
the heady business of disaster response.

Emergency officials from adjacent Maricopa and Pinal counties had never
even talked with the community before, said Sanders. And "every time I'd go
up to [the Arizona division], the state director would turn and go the
other way." The political atmosphere was rough, but Gila River figured that
sovereignty was less about isolation than about partnering with neighbors
and building alliances that last.

Since then, said Sanders, Gila River has established an "extraordinary
relationship" with both counties and the state. They now have a tribal
representative on each state regional advisory committee, but they haven't
reached parity yet. "We're at the table and we're participating, but I
still see room for improvement."

One hurdle that tribes face was set up by Uncle Sam. The Stafford Act,
which governs the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for natural
disasters, classifies tribes as a type of "local government," a step below
the state level. "Tribal governments may be a lot of things," mused
Sanders, "but a local government isn't one of them."

It took years of wrangling to get "tribal government" written into official
documents, he explained, but the "local" category has stuck, even in the
Homeland Security Act of 2002. While he applauded FEMA's effort to provide
tribal-specific training courses, Sanders, the community's emergency
operations coordinator, said "the government-to-government issue is a
sticking point with many tribes, especially with us."

As a result, tribes are unable to request a federal emergency declaration
directly. Even when a disaster is confined to a reservation, the chairman
has to go through the state governor for help. Millions of federal dollars
are handed out to the states, Sanders added, who often set their priorities
without sufficient direction from FEMA.

It helps that Gila River is served by a home-grown infrastructure. In 1998
it contracted with the BIA to run its own police force and now have
improved capacity for emergency response. It also has its own telephone
company, a key asset on its 600-square-mile reservation, with special
reduced rates and a service for emergency calls by non-subscribers.

The Office of Emergency Management (OEM), where Sanders works, stresses
readiness training for tribal agencies. OEM holds exercises on handling a
suspicious parcel, on locking down schools in the event of an intruder,
even on coping with a shooting in the hospital parking lot. The community
hasn't had a disaster fatality since 1993.

Silent killers like epidemics also merit attention. OEM coordinates with
public health officials on West Nile virus and Hanta virus, and together is
developing evacuation plans for a bio-terrorist smallpox attack. It's a
planning area not as well-developed as they'd like, Sanders admitted, when
asked about more faraway epidemics like Asian bird flu. Still, they do
"functional approach" planning so that people perform the same duties
regardless of the emergency.

Gila River is a leader in tribal emergency "ops," and Sanders isn't shy
about the ultimate reason: revenues from the community's three casinos.
"The lack of funding is the problem in Indian country," he lamented. "If
the tribe didn't step up and say, 'We're going to fund and staff our Office
of Emergency Management,' we'd be just like the rest."

In the disaster business, the cycle never stops. Heavy rains this spring
have caused tremendous vegetation growth, and the community has hired 20
members in a massive project to cut weeds around houses as fire breaks for
the summer season. The monsoon microbursts won't be far behind.

"By the nature of the business," said Sanders, "we interact with people on
the worst day of their lives." His job, from dawn to dawn, is to see it's
not their last.