President Barack Obama on Saturday declared Hill County and the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in north-central Montana a disaster area after severe storms and flooding swept through the area in June.
The declaration means federal money will be available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit groups for emergency work and repair.
“We are thankful the president recognized the severity of this situation and acted quickly,” said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, in a statement. “Now the recovery process can continue with the assurance that expenses will be covered and measures will be taken to make these areas safer for future events.”
Hundreds of people on the reservation were without safe drinking water more than 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, causing millions of dollars in damage.
Neal Rosette, the Chippewa Cree Tribe’s executive administrative officer, said the federal money will be used to repair the water system, rebuild a health clinic, and fix roads.
“It’s a Godsend,” Rosette told The Associated Press on Saturday. “We’re an impoverished reservation and we really didn’t have the resources to tackle a disaster of this magnitude. I guess now the real hard work starts.”
He said the Rocky Boy Health Center received structural damage after the hillside it’s built on shifted, and that a makeshift clinic has been set up for the 3,700 tribal members who live on the reservation.
“Every member of my tribe that’s living on the reservation got affected by this flood one way or another,” he said.
Roads outside the reservation in Hill County were damaged, as was the 10,000-acre Beaver Creek Park owned by the county. County Commissioner Kathy Bessette welcomed the president’s declaration.
“That’s great, we’re really happy to hear that,” she told the AP. “There’s been a lot of damage to county roads, bridges and culverts washed out. The reservation has terrific, horrific damages.”
Late last month, Schweitzer sent Obama a request for the disaster declaration to 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.
Also late last month, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., toured the reservation with three representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assess damage.
The agency on Saturday said additional designations might be made later depending on damage assessments.