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Federal emergency training for tribes pays off in tornado zone

You can’t harness a natural disaster, but you can prepare for it.

Training is the groundwork in the Federal Emergency Management Agency classes that have been designed “by Natives for Natives.”

Training for Tribal Representatives is a series of FEMA courses in how to better manage emergencies by having effective systems in place before disaster strikes.

So far, 212 of the 562 federally recognized tribes have taken part in the training. A dozen are from the flood-prone Gulf Coast; some others range through Tornado Alley, fire-hazard areas of California and up into Alaska.

“The benefit of attending these classes is to help tribes develop their own emergency management programs,” said Steven Golubic, Birch Island Band of Ojibwa, tribal liaison for the FEMA courses. “That will give them a basic understanding of what is needed to develop a program, including people and resources. It also helps the tribes better serve and protect their lands and their citizens in the event of a disaster or other incident.”

The Caddo Nation is one tribe that often makes use of FEMA training, and not only during the May 13 tornado that struck Anadarko, Okla.

“We were hit by seven natural disasters in the year 2007. Caddo County, Okla. is number one for presidentially-declared disasters in the nation. And we’re also number one for tornadoes,” said Polly Edwards, the Caddo Nation’s emergency management director.

Edwards took the Mitigation for Tribal Officials course and the related Incident Commander System courses in 2007. The mitigation course enabled her to write a grant that obtained $100,000 for emergency response services encompassing a broad area.

“We have a great need. Getting emergency management up and running so we can take care of our people and keep them safe – we can alert them – is my prime directive,” said Edwards, who is also the tribe’s EPA office director.

Early warning systems help. Edwards is looking into a weather radio rebate plan whereby FEMA would pay for the radios and she would program them and distribute them to residents. They would go not only to tribal members but to people of other tribes and cultures who live within the Caddo Nation’s jurisdiction.

In the FEMA programs, “we cannot distinguish between color, race or creed. The little white lady who lives across the street – we’ll give her a radio. The Cherokee guy who lives down the street, we’ll give him one. We’ll definitely give one to every Caddo who wants one.”

One of the courses is Building Partnerships with Tribal Governments; it’s intended to foster inter-tribal planning and joint ventures between tribes and non-Native governments. Edwards agrees this kind of cooperation is vital.

“I think that it’s been a really hard thing for tribes to want to cooperate with the state and FEMA because so many regulations come with their money, but to tell you the truth, you’re talking about a disaster. A tornado is going to hit everybody. You’re going to need to help each other. The sharing of interests is paramount to taking care of your people.”

Roads that cross jurisdictional boundaries give one such example, Edwards said. “If you can’t get to people, then there is no way to help them.” After last month’s Anadarko tornado, “we had to open those roads. We had 16 crews out with chainsaws in the middle of the night, using lamps, to cut away debris.”

The Caddo Nation emergency management office is getting ready to partner with the Cedar Lake Fire Department, which is in a non-Native community; and the neighboring Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma to create a consortium of emergency managers.

“We’re going to build a task force so that when a disaster hits, we can respond,” Edwards said. “We’re crossing lines, but we have a common interest. It’s a way for us to join our resources together and not buy the same equipment but share all of our equipment.”

FEMA courses teach that identifying risks, having standard operating procedures in place, and periodically testing training by holding drills, is all part of good planning.

A FEMA/Tribal Relations Policy was enacted in 1997. FEMA coordinates the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made. Nuclear waste issues had propelled the National Congress of American Indians to call for federal response.

“This effort started with radiological emergency preparedness. Robert Holden (NCAI) started it because of the radioactive waste being shipped through reservation lands on the trains back in the early ’90s,” said Katie Hirt, a FEMA tribal training coordinator. “After that it was decided, why don’t we address emergency management and all hazards in general, to help tribes build capability. It’s really about helping tribes maintain sustainability.”

“The training program for tribes began about six years ago; we as an agency realized that we were deficient in providing tribally specific courses in emergency management, because tribes as sovereign nations are different than cities, counties and states,” Golubic said.

FEMA officials with the program got input from tribal leaders to design the curriculum, Hirt said. “The cadre of instructors are either Native or have been working with the tribes for a long time.”

Occasionally courses are given in tribal regions, but currently, most courses are held at the Federal Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md. FEMA reimburses tribal members for travel expenses, and courses are offered free. Participants pay for meals.

For more information, visit www.fema.gov or contact Golubic at (202) 646-3444.