February 4, 2009 By Jessica Hughes
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.
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.
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