It's Too Late to Prepare for an Emergency During an Emergency

A column by Walter Lamar about disaster preparedness.

Is your tribal community fully prepared for an emergency related to wildfire or flooding? No matter where your community is located this year’s weather has likely put you at some level of risk.

When a fire flared up on August 2 near Lame Deer, Montana, residents of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation had been hard at work cleaning up damage from the fires that destroyed 325,000 acres and 38 structures in June and July. 50 mile-per-hour winds blew the fire out of control quickly, giving residents little time to evacuate. Some residents who got stranded due to highway closures never received an evacuation order. Many barely escaped the out-of-control flames.

It bears repeating that the hottest weather on record combined with a crippling drought has created tinder dry wildfire conditions throughout Indian country. As of this writing, 60 fires are raging throughout the country, with active fires on tribal lands in Montana (again), Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. As residents of Santa Ana Pueblo in New Mexico are discovering, when the rains finally do come, they bring catastrophic flooding of the burned areas and degradation of surface water from ash and increased sediment.

Thanks to Smokey the Bear, we know how to prevent wildfires, but not everyone is as aware of how to stay safe and prevent property damage when a wildfire is threatening. FEMA recommends that individuals put together a survival kit to sustain them for a few days, make a plan for your family. Make sure you know what the tribal or community emergency plan directs or orders, and stay informed as to your level of risk. Like the Crow Agency evacuees, residents in rural areas may need to trust their senses and get out of danger before being contacted by authorities. Should emergency response authorities issue instructions it is critical to do as they suggest or order as quickly and safely as possible.

Property owners in forested areas can prepare for wildfire by clearing dead or dying wood and dry plant materials away from the house and off the roof, thinning spaces between tree crowns and clearing areas around propane tanks and barbecues. If you can, use fire-resistant building materials and landscaping plants where possible, create “safety zones.” If your house is vulnerable to fires, print out FEMA's guide and use it as a checklist.

When wildfire threatens, if there is time, you can make your home safer by turning off your gas at the meter, closing your doors and windows and soaking your roof and plants within 15 feet of the house. If you have an outside fuel tank, set up a sprinkler to soak the area around the tank. If you have animals, either take them with you (if you can) or turn them out so they can escape. More tips are available at the ASPCA website. Good preparation, including putting pet recovery stickers on your window, can reduce losses and speed recovery in a time of disaster or emergency.

How can tribes prepare for natural disasters like fire or flood? FEMA has ramped up their work with tribes and offers training for tribal officials that helps communities prepare before an emergency and recover afterwards. Tribal officials can also reach out to county and state agencies to ensure that tribal sovereignty and other major issues are considered while planning for emergencies. Tribal councils can communicate evacuation routes and shelter areas before emergency strikes.

Unfortunately, tribes still lack a powerful tool to respond to and recover from disasters. Currently, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) deprives Indian tribal governments of the right to request emergency or major disaster declarations directly. Tribes may obtain Federal disaster assistance only if the governor of the state in which they are located seeks and obtains a declaration. Currently pending legislation S. 2283/ HR 1953 seeks to amend this law so that tribes have the same power as states to declare disaster.

In a recent letter to Congress urging passage of the amendment, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate wrote, “The Stafford Act’s classification of tribes as “local governments” is anachronistic and inconsistent with the United States’ unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribal governments.... It can also interfere in the relationship between FEMA and the tribes, and impede the delivery of Federal disaster assistance to tribal communities in need.” The National Congress of American Indians, the United South and Eastern Tribes, and the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes have also passed resolutions expressing support for the proposed amendment.

Unfortunately, the bill has languished in committees, so it remains up to individuals and tribal leaders to voice their strong desire to see this positive change made.

The National Congress of American Indians urges tribal leaders and those with an Indian country interest to send letters and call their members of Congress to push through the House and Senate versions, H.R. 2903 (the FEMA Reauthorization Act of 2011) and S.2283. The contact information for your senator can be found here, and the contact information for your representative can be found here.

As our climate changes, we all must expect and prepare for extreme weather in all its terrible forms. If you wait to get ready until the natural disaster is on your doorstep, you have waited too long. As one evacuee in Lame Deer reported to the Billings Gazette, “We had no time to get anything out but ourselves.”

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI Special Agent, Deputy Director of BIA Law Enforcement and currently President of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian Country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.