Karen Bailey-Boone via Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives
Ice weighed down branches after an early December storm, causing them to break and crash to the ground.

Friendships Forged in Crisis: Choctaw Nation and American Red Cross Partner to Speed Disaster Relief

Brian Daffron
12/24/13

The ice storm hit the Choctaw Nation hard, pummeling eastern Oklahoma for days starting on December 6.

At least 13,000 people lost power, in some cases for days, the Choctaw Nation said in a release. Pipes froze and choked off water supplies. Tree branches got so burdened with ice that they cracked and crashed to the ground, rendering walking outside dangerous, TulsaWorld.com reported. Debris was strewn everywhere.

Amid the chaos, the Choctaw Nations emergency services were in full swing. This time they were working more closely than usual with the Red Cross, in a new program designed to decrease response time for aid and increase efficiency. Since August the Red Cross has been conducting direct outreach to tribes in order to coordinate emergency relief efforts.

Under the American Red Cross Native Community Partnership Initiative, the mostly volunteer organization is working to build "a strong and lasting partnership with American Indians and Alaska Natives,” helping them prepare “for the hazards they face, reducing their disaster vulnerabilities, responding quickly and effectively when disasters strike, and recovering in their aftermath," according to its mission statement.

“It’s a brand new day with Red Cross,” said Chele Rider, the Red Cross’s division disaster state relations director. “You have a person who will answer the phone and help you move forward with this partnership. It’s a national focus."

Oklahoma, being within Rider’s Southwest and Rocky Mountain Division, was severely affected by the December ice storms, making roads difficult to travel and power lines snapping under the weight of sleet and frozen rain. In addition to the Choctaw, the Cherokee Nation was hit hard enough to declare an emergency, the tribe said in a release on December 9. But the Choctaw in southeastern Oklahoma bore the brunt of the storm, despite meticulous preparation.

"When we see a weather event coming, we generally have about five days,” Rider said. “We call those ‘notice events.’ There are ‘no-notice events’ like earthquakes, explosions, things like that. We have notice events, which tend to be weather events most of the time. We have about a five-day window when we know it’s going to happen. We start moving stuff that far ahead of time.”

The Choctaw Nation’s emergency management team and the American Red Cross began working together in the town of Hugo, Oklahoma, to avoid having duplicate shelters. Choctaw Nation provided the shelter and the Red Cross provided other resources, such as cots and food.

“I felt that it was a good partnership,” said Jeff Hansen, Choctaw Nation emergency manager. “I felt there were some frustrating levels, as with any partnership. Overall, I feel it was very successful. They were able to help us affect positively a large number of people. I think it was a great experience to be able to work with them.”

With Choctaw Nation’s partnering efforts with the Red Cross and with other groups such as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, the groups found ways to help not only Choctaw Nation members, but also all people within the affected areas.

With this storm behind them, Rider, who is a Choctaw Nation member, said she has continued her follow-up calls with tribal emergency disaster administrators in order “to find out how we can best fit into their structure and bring the services and support that we offer.”

Hansen, on the Choctaw Nation’s end, said that he’d like to see the Red Cross offer training for his staff members, as well as having pre-staged areas set up throughout the nation to easily deploy emergency supplies.

“We’re trying to get in the process of having the capability of opening up any of our community centers as a shelter if the need arose,” Hansen said. “I’ve been working with the Red Cross to set up some training for our community center employees so they can become better versed in shelter management and volunteer management so that they’re better prepared to handle those situations as they arise.”

Such partnerships have been a boon to the Choctaw Nation and can work for others as well, tribal officials said. They stressed the need for tribes to create several partnerships in order to expand disaster relief efforts and resources.

“Sometimes, you are limited in resources,” said Matt Gregory, Choctaw Nation Risk Management executive director. “Sometimes, the counties you live in have limited resources. Every partner you can bring in, whether it’s Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, Baptist Men, it’s just additional resources for you, your tribal members, and the community as a whole.”

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