California's Yurok Tribe Collaborates With FEMA After Flood

American Indian tribe used flood as cause to educate its people, develop emergency plan.

by / February 4, 2009

California's most populous American Indian tribe and one of its poorest and most rural - the Yurok Tribe - has used its area's natural disasters as cause to educate its people, develop an emergency plan and forge coordination with local governments.

In the face of a 2005 Christmastime flood, the tribe - untouched by the wealth and political power that marks many of the state's Native American that have gaming operations tribes - went to work with local governments and helped create a mutual aid partnership template that was distributed to tribes throughout California. The template pushes to strengthen tribal-local government relationships - a dynamic that has been fraught by the complexity of tribal sovereignty and the absence of state regulatory guidance.

"The Yurok Tribe has made huge strides in expanding capabilities in responding to natural hazards," said Mark Ghilarducci, vice president and director of the Western States Regional Office of James Lee Witt Associates, an emergency management consulting firm.

Rising Waters

When the winter flood wreaked havoc on the Yurok reservation, drinking water was cut off, mudslides isolated people and high water levels damaged fish-monitoring equipment.

"We were caught off guard," said Labecca Nessier, the tribe's emergency services coordinator.

The tribe's land is tucked into California's isolated northwest corner, in old growth redwoods. The 58,000-acre reservation follows the Klamath River from the Pacific Ocean for 45 miles, and spans a mile wide on each side. The tribe's population is concentrated in the upriver community of Weitchpec and at the river's mouth in Klamath, Calif., Nessier said.

About 2,000 of the 5,000 Yuroks live on the reservation, and many don't have telephone service or electricity. Highway 169, a one-lane road that services the reservation from the south, dead ends inside the reservation. "So it's quite a challenge to provide emergency notifications. ... It's basically door to door during a flood event," Nessier said.

The Klamath is Califonia's second largest river, after the Sacramento River, and its swelling waters have shaped the Yurok Tribe in many ways. Two major floods ravaged the lower Klamath in 1955 and 1964. The middle Klamath flooded after rainstorms drenched Northern California in 1996-1997.

At the time of the 2005-2006 flood, the tribe didn't have an organized emergency response and also faced other challenges. The already-isolated area was further cut off when debris blocked roadways, choking communication and stopping resource allocation.

The flood hit the reservation the week before Christmas - when people tend to be gone on vacation, said Peggy O'Neil, the tribe's planning director. And the interim tribal police chief had been on the job only a week or two.

Operation Coordination
Because there were no existing agreements, the tribe faced problems getting resources and recognition from local authorities, Ghilarducci said. For the most part, tribes aren't included in the mainstream emergency management structure, he said.

O'Neil said it was difficult knowing who to ask and how to ask for help. The surrounding counties looked to the Yurok's incident commander and incident command structure - there wore neither.

"The Yurok Tribe is a fairly new government and at the time we did not realize the need to prepare ourselves," Nessier said. "The lack of coordination and communication during that event awoke us to the need to coordinate with the local governments."

O'Neil said she now recognizes the significance of defining roles during a disaster and knowing the tribe's strengths and weaknesses. "We are capable when it comes to knowing our communities, but limited in manpower and resources," she said.

In the years since the flood, the tribe has made a concerted effort to coordinate, train and exercise with all levels of government, Nessier said. The tribe created an emergency operations plan and trained more than 70

percent of its work force in the National Incident Management System. And the tribe now has shelters with generators and people designated to lead various aspects of disaster response and recovery.

The reservation traverses two counties: Del Norte and Humboldt. The counties, or operational areas, have separate policies, personnel and incident command structures, which makes it difficult for the tribe to establish connections. Tribal representatives began attending county emergency services meetings - an indication to the counties that the tribe was willing to do its part, Ghilarducci said.

Following the flood, the tribe created the emergency services coordinator position and appointed Nessier, a newly trained Community Emergency Response Team member, to the post. Because of her efforts, the tribe received a CaliforniaVolunteers grant in June 2007 and hired James Lee Witt Associates to improve the tribe's coordination with the two operational areas. A tabletop exercise was conducted in December 2007 that included the Yurok Tribe plus four other tribes, the two counties, Red Cross, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Governor's offices of Emergency Services and Homeland Security and several other agencies.

"As an unattached third party, we were able to stimulate discussion, ask the hard questions and get them to support each other," Ghilarducci said. James Lee Witt Associates brought the tribe and counties together to voice their needs and decide how to meet them. The openness also resulted in better coordination between the counties, he said.

In some ways, Ghilarducci said, tribal governments have the best of both worlds. In times of distress, they can ask for federal assistance - from FEMA or the Bureau of Indian Affairs - or lobby local governments for help. They also retain national sovereignty.

Yet the external support that tribes receive from cities and counties can depend on the tribe's resources - leaving many poor tribes unable to forge mutual aid agreements with neighbors.

"Tribes that don't have that gaming capability are still at the mercy of grants and the federal government to be able to provide some assistance," he said. This presents a roadblock for a standardized, statewide approach, which Ghilarducci said is needed.

As it stands, the state's emergency management framework - the Standardized Emergency Management System - lacks provisions for tribal governments.

"There are a lot of gaps in how tribal nations fit into the system," Nessier said. "There needs to be a Cabinet-level liaison at both the federal and state levels to work with tribes to resolve varied issues."

Ghilarducci agrees that leadership is necessary. He said the Governor's Office of Homeland Security has continued to work on the issue with the state's tribes.

In 2008, there was some discussion at the state Capitol about amending the California Emergency Services Act, but budget considerations stalled progress, Ghilarducci said. Changing the act would let tribal governments participate in the mutual aid system.

Learning Curve
But much can be done while tribes and governments wait on lawmakers. Most important is to establish dialog and clarify expectations, Ghilarducci said. Given strong opinions on terminology and entrenched ideas of how tribes and local governments should operate, that's not the easiest task.

"It was a learning curve for all of us to figure out how the Yurok tribal government and local governments were supposed to work together," Nessier said. "Not all counties know how to work with tribes and not all tribes know how to work with counties, and I think it needs to be brought forward a little more."

But as a result of the coordination, the tribes and counties are developing memorandums of understanding that let the counties better respond on tribal land, Nessier said.

The increased coordination, along with a focus on emergency management, gives the tribe a fighting chance against the next flood. Not only that, the tribe now has the means to battle forest fires and face a tsunami. Soon the tribe will receive a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant for a remotely activated solar-powered siren system - a useful tool since many Yuroks are unreachable by phone, TV and radio.

The Yurok Tribe and James Lee Witt Associates are collaborating again through a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant. It's the first time the DHS has offered funding directly to tribes, Nessier said.
The grant will let stakeholders meet at the table again and help sustain coordination efforts, Ghilarducci said.
"This will give us a second bite at the apple," he said.


Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.