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Flooding hits Montana tribe hard

Host of faith-based organizations providing supplies and support to survivors

BY JOHN PAPE | June 11, 2011

"We’ve never been a rich people; we’ve always struggled, but we’ve always survived"

—Cynthia Old Crow

A host of faith-based disaster relief organizations are providing assistance to Montana’s Crow Indian Nation after floodwaters from the Little Bighorn River and other streams swamped homes and other buildings in the tribe’s reservation south of Billings.

Todd Chambers, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Billings, said the flooding was triggered by a combination of a heavier-than-normal spring snowmelt and torrential rainfall.

“With streams already full from the (snowmelt) runoff, and the ground saturated, the heavy rainfall sent streams and rivers quickly out of their banks,” Chambers said. “There was simply no where else for the water to go.”

Crow tribal officials quickly sent search teams into remote parts of the sprawling but sparsely-settled 3.2 million-acre reservation that is home to fewer than 7,000 tribal members. Crow leaders scrambled to account for those who stayed behind and delivered food to more than 100 people surrounded by floodwaters in the Pryor area.

“There are families and elders (that were) isolated and stranded in their homes," tribal spokesman Donald Spotted Tail said. “There was no way for them to access basic human needs such as food and water.”

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer mobilized more than 50 members of the National Guard to man checkpoints and assist with rescue operations in the Crow nation.

Additionally, tribal leaders quickly moved emergency supplies to the community of Lodge Grass, which was also cut off by flooding and where residents had been running low on food, water and fuel.

While some tribal members remained in their homes, others were evacuated to Red Cross shelters in Billings.

Some 300 evacuees were housed in dorm rooms at Montana State University Billings after another shelter at the Billings Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints proved too small to accommodate the growing number of victims displaced by the flooding.

Terrie Iverson, vice chancellor for administrative services at MSU Billings, said an emergency services agreement with the Red Cross to provide shelter space had been in place for about 20 years; however, this was the first time in memory it actually had to be used.

Iverson also said there was “no question” that MSU Billings was willing to help those in need.

“We are the university for our community and are the university for our outlying communities as well,” Iverson said.

Linens for evacuees were provided by the university while the local Hilton Garden Inn provided various toiletries.

In addition, the Red Cross worked with MSU Billings food service provider Sodexo Food Services to provide meals to evacuees, while university staff ran movies for the children in the student union building. The efforts to make flood victims comfortable prompted evacuees to dub their dorm shelter “the Hilton of shelters.”

Despite the accommodating treatment extended to the flood victims at the university, they eventually had to be relocated to the multipurpose center at the Crow Agency in order to be closer to their homes. Red Cross personnel at the MSU Billings shelter also moved to the center.

The Red Cross also established a statewide disaster operations center at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in Bozeman. Red Cross officials said Bozeman was chosen because of its centralized location. More than 50 volunteers staffed the center, managing Red Cross relief shelters statewide and coordinating the distribution of food and supplies.

As floodwaters began to recede, numerous faith-based agencies mobilized to help the stricken tribe.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief shipped 900 clean-up kits and flood buckets to a warehouse in Helena. Of that, 200 each were immediately shipped to the Crow and Fort Belknap reservations while the remainder were held for future distribution.

In addition to the use of its Billings church as an emergency shelter, the LDS Church, through its Latter-day Saints Charities, provided the Crow Nation with 300 hygiene kits, two pallets of water, 252 bucket cleaning kits and more than 50 boxes of food items.

The Montana Food Bank Network donated 1,500 cases of shelf-stable milk, 1,960 cases of water, bulk cereal, fresh potatoes, canned salmon and instant oatmeal.

Through its Montana Conference, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief deployed its 5,000 meal-per-day field kitchen to Billings to support the Red Cross shelter operations. So far, the kitchen has prepared 8,730 meals.

In addition, the conference this week provided a 26-foot cargo trailer with six shower stalls and a washer and dryer to the Crow Agency.

The assistance was particularly critical for a tribe where the poverty rate has been traditionally high and members have few personal resources to draw upon when disaster strikes. The average income among the Crow is less than $8,000 per year and the unemployment rate runs as high as 47 percent.

Crow Nation Chairman Cedric Black Eagle said the tribe was doing everything possible to provide assistance, even to the point of exhausting its severely-limited funding.

“We’re under a budget crunch. We’ve already depleted most of our fiscal year budget in this event,” Black Eagle said.

Costs associated with the flood have already forced the tribe to lay off 150 employees, most of which were recently hired. High costs associated with flood rescue and recovery hit even as the Crow Nation was facing a severe budget shortfall because of a decrease in mineral leases and other revenue.

“The only way we can survive (financially) is to let people go,” tribal personnel director Kayle Howe told The Billings Gazette.

Howe also said Crow leaders hope to recoup money paid to workers who helped with the disaster relief, although that will take time. Until then, tribal funds will remain critically short.

Tribal member Cynthia Old Crow said the Crow Nation has been hit hard by the flood, but would recover.

“We’ve never been a rich people; we’ve always struggled, but we’ve always survived. That’s what we will do now,” Old Crow said. “Our people are used to struggling; it’s our way of life. We will do what we always do – pull together and help each other get through this.”

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