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American Indians prepare

When wildfire scorched parts of New Mexico last year, it didn't discriminate with devastation.


"We have for years felt that we had to do something to focus on distant populations, particularly indigenous ones."

—Larry Roeder

When wildfire scorched parts of New Mexico last year, it didn't discriminate with its devastation.

"Just because you're an Indian on a reservation doesn't mean you're immune to disasters," said Joe Garcia, first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). "Many Indian lives and lands were devastated by wildfires last year - like the Los Alamos Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico."

Garcia said this devastation was indirectly related to technology. Most Americans think of the digital divide as existing only in developing countries, yet according to Garcia, the digital divide very much exists in many parts of the American Indian community.

"The digital divide does exist," Garcia told the Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN) conference this weekend in Washington, D.C.

"When we talk about technologies that people use everyday - like email or the Internet not everyone works like that." Garcia said that this digital divide makes disaster mitigation and relief a challenge in those communities.

In response to those challenges faced by American Indians, Garcia and GDIN announced that they are now working together to create a disaster information network designed and managed by American Indians.

"We have for years felt that we had to do something to focus on distant populations, particularly indigenous ones," said Larry Roeder, executive director of GDIN. Roeder said they'll start on a network with the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, and then hopefully be able to use it as a template for starting other tribal networks in the U.S., Canada, and South Africa.

Roeder said the preliminary idea that GDIN and representatives from the NCAI came up with involves a system of connected offices across the different pueblos in New Mexico. "Sharing information is a challenge," he said. "What we need is a system that can be used easily an inter-tribal solution that facilitates conversation."

The current network idea of having inter-connected offices, said Roeder, will function on each of those offices having their own profile. "The idea is for the local Pueblo representatives and GDIN to develop profiles on the hazards and the capacity of the residents of that region to receive and use information."

Roeder said this network plan would be able to avoid the expense of having offices staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He gave the following example of how that is avoided:

There are five regional offices in several different time zones. A disaster occurs in Region 1, where it's 2 a.m. No one is in the office at that time as they're all at home sleeping. Yet in Region 5, it's already morning and people are in their office. The offices are connected by satellites (this is where GDIN's connections and experience will help in negotiating use of certain international satellites), so a disaster alert for Region 1 will be picked up by the Region 5 office. The workers in the Region 5 office will have the profile from Region 1, so they'll know who to contact and how to contact them. That makes the network work 24/7, even though each region's staff is not in the office 24/7.

"Yet this is all still a blueprint right now," he added. "This is going to take a lot of teamwork."

More of the teamwork will continue this week, as Roeder and several other GDIN representatives will travel to New Mexico Monday to discuss the idea more with members of the Laguna Pueblo tribe - the tribe that is the starting point in the program.

Garcia knows the road ahead will be challenging. "There are a few more questions we need to discuss before moving forward," he said. "We need to make sure we know what similar programs and networks might already exist, we also need to make sure we work with all related agencies and organizations. And the big part is, how do we sell this idea to the rest of the Indian community?"

Yet even though the network plan is still in its very beginning design stages, everyone involved sees great promise. "This is a great start. I think we can go out and sell this," said John 'Chris' Ahmie, CEO of Laguna Industries. Ahmie is a Laguna Pueblo Indian involved in the beginning stages.

He agreed that his tribe is the right place to start. "By using (the Laguna Pueblo), it won't be a tough sell to the other pueblos because many of them view us as a progressive pueblo, many of them look to us for guidance," he said.

Ahmie and Garcia agreed that the network is also an opportunity for the tribes involved to help the non-Indian communities that border their reservations, as many of them are in a similar digital divide position.

"We see this GDIN network as something that could work for us," said Garcia. "The important thing is our developing this GDIN partnership because we can't do it alone."

David Baxa, GDIN executive committee member, said he's excited to see where the network could go in the future. "If we're successful with this in our Indian communities, it will be a great template for other U.S. tribes and other countries," said Baxa. "This is a distinct reality we could encourage."

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