The worst natural disasters to strike tribal nations in 2008

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The winds of destruction lived up to their name this year, as the deadliest of natural disasters to strike the country’s tribal nations, uprooting trees, roofs and sometimes, entire homes and, unfortunately, costing tribal lives. The Federal Emergency Management Agency declared disasters for an unprecedented number of tribal nations, and counties with large Native populations this year.

In July, Hurricane Dolly severely flooded parts of New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache Reservation. “Major fires in the spring burned the underbrush so the waters just flooded through washing out our bridges, roads, homes,” said the tribe’s transportation planning manager Frances Cochise.

Hurricane Gustav made landfall on the Louisiana bayou Sept. 1 just 30 miles of the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana before roaring through the United Houma Nation with high winds and tornado activity and leaving behind wind damage and severe flooding, as well as damage to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama.

Two weeks later Hurricane Ike struck tribal nations with vengeance, causing heavy wind damage and severe flooding to Louisiana’s Pointe-au-Chien, and Beloxi-Chitimacha, and United Houma Nation – tribal communities already stricken by 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With Ike came the year’s first hurricane-caused death, when a 16-year-old Houma tribal member drowned trying to escape his home. In Texas, Ike damaged areas of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe.

Tornados pounded Oklahoma’s tribal nations March 31, leaving a swathe of wind damage and flooding. Severe storms continued to produce tornados across Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Oklahoma the first part of April. A dizzying dance of tornados, high winds, and flooding continued at month’s end, striking Wisconsin and Maine tribal communities and other parts of the north central and northeastern United States.

Nothing is left of Picher, Okla., whose 800 residents fled for good following a deadly tornado that swept across northeast Oklahoma and southwest Mississippi May 10. The federal government finally agreed to buy out and relocate residents of the town, already one of the most toxic areas in the country from waste left behind by mining companies. “Our communities got hurt, so we felt very strongly that we should pitch in and help the people who lost their homes, property, and who are dealing with the loss of loved ones who died in this tragedy,” said a Quapaw Tribal statement.

On July 7, a violent tornado ripped through the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians’ reservation in North Dakota “There were no warnings,” said tribal news reporter Logan Davis. “Martin Peltier actually saw the twister moving towards him through the treetops. He wound up with a crushed pelvis and tailbone when the twister tore his house off and buried him beneath the rubble.” The tornado damaged more than 50 homes in the already poverty-stricken area, and destroyed 12.

Iowa’s Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi “lost some 25 homes, commercial and ceremonial buildings but thankfully, no lives” to the flooding that hit the Midwest in June, said tribal media coordinator Denise Davenport. Other flood-hit states were Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi and Wisconsin.

The remote village of Supai deep in the Grand Canyon, home to 400 Havasupai tribal members, suffered severe damage when heavy rains Aug. 17 produced floodwaters that broke through the earthen Redlands Dam and sent water rushing through their village. The ensuing damage forced the tribe to close visitor access to the village, campground and trails to their famed waterfalls until Spring 2009. Telephone service to the tribe was out until Dec. 22, when the tribe was found still in a state of emergency. “Right now there’s no power,” tribal chair Don Watahomigie said. “The power lines are broken up top of the canyon. They run our wells, everything.”

The year ended with a series of robust winter storms from Maine to Oregon, with heavy rains, snow, sleet and ice across the country. Last June the Bush Administration’s U.S. Climate Change Science Program concluded that climate change is fueling extreme weather events: “With continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. … more frequent droughts of greater severity. Hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity and storm surge levels are likely to increase. The strongest cold season storms are likely to become more frequent, with stronger winds and more extreme wave heights.”

Tribes around the country met the challenges of climate change by hosting a number of climate change, adaptation, energy conferences and meetings in 2008. For more information, visit www.tribalclimate.org.