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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

With tribal lands in Florida largely spared from the wrath of Hurricane Ian, the Miccosukee Tribal Police have joined the search-and-rescue efforts along the western coastline of the state.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida reported no damage, though the tribe’s Hard Rock Casino Resorts in Tampa and Orlando closed during the storm. The Miccosukee Tribe likewise reported no significant damage.

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Curtis Osceola, the Miccosukee chief of staff, told ICT that a group of tribal officers have been assigned to strike teams, with two groups assigned to hard-hit Naples and and a third in Everglades City.

The search and recovery effort is now focused on people, he said.

“What happens during these storms is that a large number of 911 calls come in and they get a backlog,” Osceola said. “And so the reason why it's important for law enforcement to band together and help is so they can clear those calls. A lot of what we're doing is going in and clearing those calls, whether they're calls for help or assistance or reporting crimes.”

The calls are numbering in the thousands now and continue to pour in. More than 500 people had been rescued as of Thursday afternoon, and deaths are being reported.

Miccosukee Wildlife Officer Rusty Lacy, in rear in tan shirt, helps Tampa-area first responders rescue a family in the Naples, Florida, area in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in Florida on Sept. 28, 2022. The Miccosukee Tribe did not have severe damage in the storm and sent in tribal police and wildlife officers with airboats to help with recovery in Naples and Everglades City. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Osceola)

“In Lee County alone, which is one of the worst hit areas, there are over 800 backed-up calls, though none are on tribal lands,” Osceola said.

“This is us, the Miccosukee, trying to be good neighbors,” he said. “Our police forces have always been a great partner to the municipalities around us. And this is another part of our effort to be good neighbors and to offer some support in their time of need.”

Osceola said the tribal officers are well-prepared for dealing with the flooding and water damage to buildings with the airboats they use in the Everglades for quickly skimming over shallow water.

“We rely on a lot of local equipment like helicopters, and we also have a couple airboats, but we haven't had to utilize them yet,” he said. “The damage I’ve seen, it's been catastrophic. The images coming in are unprecedented for the west coast of Florida.”

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott warned residents in the days leading up to landfall that they needed to evacuate, but not everyone agreed.

“The governor and Senator Scott were both on TV in the days leading up to it, saying, ‘This is gonna be a killer storm surge. You need to get out. You can't stay. It will kill you,’” Osceola said.

“And, you know, it was. I think a lot of people got out, but there are some that didn't heed those warnings. And so part of the search and recovery team is to try and get those people out, see if we can help.”

He said the tribe is prepared to stay as long as they are needed.

“The tribe's not going anywhere,” he said. “Our officers are some of the finest that we've ever had. And they just want to help. So as long as it takes, we'll be there to help.”

The Miccosukee offered protection during the storm as well. Several people evacuating from the west coast ended up staying the night at the newly updated Miccosukee Service Plaza on Alligator Alley, the lone stop for food, bathrooms, and gas on the long stretch of highway that cuts across the lower part of the state from Miami to Naples.

The fire department and the sheriff's department have offices there, and an ambulance is always parked onsite. It has now become an outpost for companies ferrying supplies and aid.

“We’ve been doing a lot of staging there as well, a lot of companies that do lawn care and all these contracted companies that are going to come do cleanup and recovery,” he said. “It's become a makeshift outpost. We are always facilitating. So far so good.”

Miccosukee Tribal Chairman Talbert Cypress posted a note to the community on Facebook that tribal offices and schools would be reopened on Friday.

“Right now there are a lot of people hurting that have lost so much,” Cypress said Thursday in the post. “We are lending resources from our Miccosukee Police Department and Wildlife to help with the rescue efforts in these affected areas and we should be very proud of them. Tomorrow it’s back to business as usual at the administration and school, but let’s keep the rest of the state in our thoughts.”

The Miccosukee, based in the middle of the Florida Everglades, were hard hit by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, when close to 90 percent of the houses were destroyed. 

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