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Muscogee Nation receives historic FEMA disaster declaration from President Biden

Muskogee first responders pull a resident to safety during flooding brought on by the storms in May 2022
City of Muskogee
Muskogee first responders pull a resident to safety during flooding brought on by the storms in May 2022

Oklahoma experienced severe storms, tornadoes and flooding in May that caused extensive damage throughout the Muscogee Nation reservation and beyond. At least 26 people were injured.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden has approved a disaster declaration for Muscogee Nation due to the storms. FEMA-4670-DR names the Muscogee Nation as the designated recipient for public assistance.

Communities within the tribal reservation that went through the preliminary damage assessment with FEMA, the state and the tribe will be able to apply for relief funds through Muscogee Nation.

The tribal nation will now operate in the same administrative capacity the state of Oklahoma would after receiving public assistance. The state's request was denied, although they were approved for individual assistance. Those applications are being taken through Sept. 28.

"It's unprecedented..."

The Muscogee Nation will be the first tribal government to serve as the recipient that local communities will submit through for FEMA Public Assistance funds.

Bobby Howard, the tribal nation's Emergency Management director, credits relationships they've built with local community emergency managers. He said it was important for his office to file for disaster relief separate from the state.

"This proves the sovereignty of the nation to manage the events within our jurisdictional boundaries," said Howard, who estimates the preliminary damage at $8 million.

Muscogee Nation crews remove tornado debris in Cromwell, Okla. in May 2022
Muscogee Nation
Muscogee Nation crews remove tornado debris in Cromwell, Okla. in May 2022

The tornado track started in the southwestern boundary of the tribal reservation and drove all the way across through Okfuskee, Okmulgee and Muskogee. That's also the flood track. Howard estimates that damage to be anywhere from $1 million to $3 million.

Tribal nation offices were also affected, including the Family Violence Prevention Program, which had extensive water damage.

Muscogee Nation is also asking for 406 Hazard Mitigation funding, which is a FEMA hazard grant. According to Howard, this will allow the Muscogee Nation to work with communities to "build it back better, more resilient."

Ken Doke, the county commissioner for Muscogee County District 1, says he's never had the tribal nation be approved for public assistance for disaster declaration and the state being denied.

Parts of Muscogee County received 13 inches of rain in a 24-hour period and that nearly 24 bridges and pipe crossings were affected or completely lost. Doke — who said repairs are ongoing — estimated the cost to rebuild a small bridge at $150,000.

Doke credits a good partnership with the tribe during and after the disaster.

"They literally saved our bacon," said Doke. "We really appreciate being able to work with the tribe. It's unprecedented that the tribe was approved, but the state was not."

"We always talk about being good neighbors and of how all Oklahomans benefit from tribal sovereignty when we work together. This declaration is an example of the fine work by MCN Emergency Management in doing just that," Principal Chief David Hill said. "We are grateful to the President for the confidence he has in our ability and are proud to be able to use these funds to offer support to all communities within the Reservation."

Now the work begins. Howard says a FEMA representative will be working with the tribal nation and the communities to assess road damage, so repairs can begin.

Tribal, rural communities often lose out

A 2019 analysis from the Center for Public Integrity shows tribal nations were on average more vulnerable to natural disasters, but more likely to receive less assistance than non-Native communities.

Both Howard and Doke agree with that assessment. Doke says both tribal and rural communities lose out when more money gets directed to urban areas.

The process for tribal nations to complete paperwork is often cumbersome and takes additional resources they may or may not have. Most funds are not paid up front and must be reimbursed, which can put an additional burden on the tribe.

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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