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Emergency coalition begins

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Tribes in the Rocky Mountain region began the process of planning ahead for emergencies that may occur on tribal land.

Whenever a disaster like wildfires, floods or tornadoes happen on tribal land emergency relief must be applied for through the state in which the tribe resides. The 28 tribes of the Region VIII area of the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to form a coalition to work directly with federal agencies. Tribes will still have to use states for the application process, but it will put more federal agencies and resources at the tribe's doorstep in case of emergencies.

"It took a bold initiative to bring FEMA and the tribes together, and a bold initiative to get all these tribes to sign this document together," said Gregg Bourland, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

"I want to applaud Rick (Weiland). Through his leadership in working with the tribes he has shown the goodness of his heart."

Weiland, Region VIII director, began the process of including the tribes and organized the initial September meeting to form the coalition. Region VIII is the only FEMA region to have issued a Memorandum of Understanding between the federal agency and regional tribes. The Tribal Emergency Management Coordinating Council, as it is called, has 21 tribes signed on so far.

The past year has been especially hard because of disasters on reservations in the region - fires this summer and a tornado on Pine Ridge in June 1999. This kept FEMA busy and, for the first time, emergency assistance was called for on a reservation prompting the need for the coalition, Weiland said.

Weiland, who will step down Jan. 20 because he was appointed by President Bill Clinton, said because of Clinton's orders and FEMA's work there will be 26 federal agencies ready to participate in disaster relief when a president declares an emergency.

A recent meeting in Rapid City was the first step in the planning process of TEMCC. Bourland was chosen as chairman. The committee will be made up of tribal chairmen or designated representatives from the 28 tribes.

"We had an incredible discussion. There are opportunities for tribes to coordinate and communicate about emergency management and there are opportunities for tribes having trouble to look for solutions.

"FEMA can act like an ombudsman of the federal government and point agencies in the tribe's direction. There are 26 agencies available when the president declares (an emergency)," Weiland said.

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He told more than a dozen tribal representatives at the planning session that FEMA needed to help tribes by listening to tribal leaders and find where the needs are for each tribe.

"We are in a position now to train and counsel tribes how to acquire funding that you are entitled to," Weiland said.

Tribes will have to carry the momentum forward after Weiland leaves the agency. He said the new director may not have the same priorities.

It may not take an emergency declaration before FEMA can help. Some tribes can apply for assistance in emergency planning or prevention.

"The Flathead reservation has a problem with fuel in the forest. That's a perfect example of what to bring to FEMA. There is no reason why they can't go to the state and file mitigation for assistance," Weiland said.

Weiland and the staff of Region VIII have created a "buzz" of activity among federal agencies and in other regions where working with tribes was not a priority. Through education, FEMA created a dynamic in Indian country "that will minimize the impact when disaster happens," Weiland said.

When he leaves his post, the work to form the TEMCC will continue. He said staff members who will remain are committed to the project. Senior staff accompanied Weiland to the planning meeting to get a feel for what the tribal leaders were thinking.

"We will miss Rich, but he will not be forgotten," Bourland said.

The next step for the 28 tribes will be to establish the bylaws and other criteria to govern the body. At the September gathering, each tribe that signed the memorandum agreed to create an emergency director position so there would be an office with which to communicate in case of an emergency.

Another task facing the coalition will be to seek legislation to amend the Stafford Act that created FEMA and emergency funding for disasters. The act does not mention tribes, therefore it treats them as local governments. That requires the tribal governments to go through the states to request funding and acquire emergency declarations.

The TEMCC will meet again during the Denver (Colo.) March Pow Wow. The planning committee headed by Bourland will meet prior to that session.