Oklahoma Indian nations take ice, snow in stride

Ice and snow may be a fact of winter life in many areas of Indian country, but when it hits Oklahoma and stays it can cause all kinds of problems.

Recent holiday storms which struck the state were unusual in that they stayed around so long.

Many families throughout the state found themselves without power when ice accumulated on electrical and telephone lines and caused them to break. Roads, made impassable by the ice storm, were soon buried by several inches of snow. Tribal offices and businesses throughout the state were closed off and on for more than two weeks because of the inclement weather.

Although residents were happy to see the snow and ice melt, they weren't particularly happy to see the aftermath and the damage.

The Choctaw Nation and thousands of tribal members were without power during the ice storm. The nation was able to locate an emergency generator in Kentucky and used it to run the McAlester water treatment plant.

Others weren't so fortunate. For more than a week after the crippling ice storms, many rural residents were without power. For those who were waiting to have power restored, the nation trucked supplies to families in need.

Choctaw Chief Greg Pyle said he was grateful to the army of volunteers who took the time to help clear trees and limbs to make the job easier for utility workers and assisted with distribution of food and supplies.

Many in the storm-ravaged state compared the damage from these storms to that seen after tornadoes for which the state is better known.

The damage was so severe in so many areas that 39 Oklahoma counties will receive disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. President Clinton declared the area a major disaster Jan. 5, and those affected by the storm are eligible for federal disaster assistance from FEMA.

The Chickasaw Nation has listed the counties, which qualify for FEMA assistance in the monthly newsletter: Adair, Atoka, Bryan, Carter, Cherokee, Choctaw, Cleveland, Coal, Cotton, Creek, Garvin, Grady, Haskell, Hughes, Jefferson, Johnston, Latimer, LeFlore, Lincoln, Love, Marshall, McClain, McCurtain, McIntosh, Murray, Muskogee, Okfuskee, Oklahoma, Okmulgee, Pittsburgh, Pontotoc, Pottawatamie, Pushmataha, Seminole, Sequoyah, Stephens, Tulsa, Wagoner and Washington.

Newly elected U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., is offering his office as a one-stop clearinghouse for winter storm victims, listing both the FEMA hotline number 1-800-462-9029 and his office number 1-202-225-2701. Carson urged constituents to first try the FEMA hotline and said if they needed further assistance to contact his office.

Not all the news was gloomy. The Cherokee Nation reported that one expectant mother found her baby didn't care if the roads were impassable, she was going to make her entrance one cold December night.

"We got the call about 7:30 ... ," Aaron Houston, Cherokee Nation Emergency Medical Service paramedic, said. "The woman had tried to come into town, but the truck got stuck so she and her husband called the ambulance. The roads were really bad. Even the highway felt like the roughest dirt road."

Houston and paramedics Jimmy Summerlin and Greg Whiteday rushed to pick up the expectant mother, hoping to get her to the hospital before she delivered. The baby had other plans. "I think the rough road stimulates contractions," Houston said. "As we were heading towards the hospital, she was having hard contractions. It was the woman's second child, so I told her, 'You've had a baby before, how soon do you think you're going to have this one?' She told me, "I'm going to have it anytime."

As the ambulance continued toward the hospital, the paramedics found that their passenger was right, they soon pulled into a parking lot and a baby girl got her first glimpse of the world.

"Thankfully, there were no complications. It was a great feeling to catch a newborn baby, to be the first person to touch a brand new life," Houston said. "I wish everyone I work with could experience that feeling. We dried the baby off, and the dad came back and cut the umbilical cord."

The ambulance was soon on its way again and were received at the hospital with a lot of fanfare. The paramedics returned the next day to visit with the grateful parents. Both the mother and child have since gotten a clean bill of health and returned home.

Houston and his co-workers see it as a part of their job. He said he doesn't believe they are heroes. "We were just doing our job the way we're supposed to. I was fortunate to deliver the baby, but it was a team effort by all six of us, the mother, the father, the baby and the three of us paramedics. We see a lot of bad stuff doing this job, but this was the best possible call we could of gone on.

"That's what makes it all worthwhile."