HELENA – Hundreds of people on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation are still without safe drinking water two weeks after flooding broke the reservation’s water lines, tore up roads and forced dozens of evacuations.
The flooding hit the reservation in mid-June after more than 5 inches of rain soaked the ground already saturated by an unusually wet spring. About 50 families were displaced from their homes and an initial assessment by federal, state and tribal officials put the total damage around $6 million, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services spokeswoman Monique Lay said.
All but nine families are back in their homes and many of the roads have been repaired. The most urgent situation is the lack of drinking water as the tribe awaits word on a presidential disaster declaration, said Neil Rosette, the Chippewa Cree executive administrative officer.
Families could pick up two cases of bottled water a day from distribution points on the reservation and tribal leaders were delivering water to those unable to leave their homes. Rosette estimated the tribe has spent $30,000 on bottled water so far, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered two truckloads of water on Friday.
Most of the water lines have been fixed, but the reservation’s tanks have not refilled and the system has not recharged as fast as it should, Rosette said. Water service is intermittent and all residents must boil their tap water when they get it, he said.
“The rain might have ended, but the disaster for them hasn’t,” said FEMA spokesman Tom Kempton, who was at the reservation on Friday. “This is the difficult part right now.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Brian Schweitzer sent President Barack Obama a request for a disaster declaration, which would make available millions of dollars for the tribe to fix damages to roads, public housing, government buildings and other infrastructure. The initial estimate put damages to infrastructure eligible for federal funding at $2.3 million for the reservation and Hill County.
While the disaster declaration would cover public buildings and infrastructure, there was not enough damage to privately owned homes to meet the threshold for individual assistance from the federal government. That federal aid would have provided for temporary housing and fixing private homes, Lay said.
The damage assessment concluded that out of the 94 privately owned homes in the area, two received major damage, nine had minor damage while 71 were “affected.” Twelve homes were inaccessible and could not be assessed, though they reportedly had minimal damage.
Rosette said a firm tally had not been made of how much the tribe has spent in responding to the emergency, but he estimated it was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The tribe, one of the smallest and poorest in Montana, is counting on the presidential disaster declaration to recoup those costs, he said.
“If the president doesn’t sign, then our tribe will be in a financial bind to say the least,” Rosette said. “It likely will have a devastating effect on our tribe, our economy, and every man, woman and child living on this reservation.”
The reservation in north-central Montana is home to about 3,100 of the tribe’s 5,600 enrolled members, according to the tribe.
It typically takes up to two weeks for the federal government to approve or deny a disaster request. In the meantime, federal and state emergency officials are at the reservation providing supplies and technical support.
The flood washed out the road leading to the tribe’s only health clinic and may have caused structural damage, so the clinic is offering limited services in a temporary location. Two motor homes reconfigured for medical examinations and a third providing dental services are also helping with patients.
For X-rays or more extensive care, the tribe is driving patients to clinics in nearby towns such as Havre, Rosette said.
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