BLACKFEET INDIANS BRING NEW
PERSPECTIVE TO FEMA STRIKE TEAMS
Newspaper Story for FEMA
October 15, 2005
DALLAS, Texas--Hurricanes are indiscriminate. They strike all people with equal force, without regard to class or social strata, color or background, or religion or culture. Fortunately compassion for the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita has poured in with the same unprejudiced sweep.
Yet in spite of the vast altruism poured their way, some families and individuals are less fortunate than others, and are left without homes or jobs. They must rely on the "kindness of strangers."
Most often those strangers come in the form of FEMA employees who devote their time to assisting people in need via the HELP Program. HELP is an acronym for Housing, Employment, Location, and Placement, and many displaced evacuees in Dallas are getting their help from members of Blackfeet Indian Tribe, who have joined FEMA for the same reason as so many others: To use their unique experiences to bring aid to victims of tragedy.
While all FEMA workers offer compassion and sympathetic support to storm victims, the Blackfeet workers may just bring with them a greater understanding of how it feels to be displaced and lost in a world that continues to turn while so many are in limbo.
The Blackfeet Indian Nation once occupied a large chunk of North America, stretching as far south as Wyoming, as far east as the Dakotas, and as far north as Alberta in Canada. Today the American band of the Blackfeet Nation resides on a reservation near Browning, Montana, and it has sent many of its sons and daughters to help with hurricane relief in Texas.
Mary Reevis, a Blackfeet woman who has worked with disaster relief since 1985, knew her fellow tribe members would be more than up to the difficult task of working on FEMA's "strike teams," the workers who follow up with evacuees, keeping check on their continuing status. As the lead supervisor in Dallas, it is Mary's job to coordinate and even train her fellow Blackfeet Indians. Like most FEMA employees, she has worn many hats in service to the agency, but she finds this role particularly rewarding.
"I think our people have survived all these years by helping others," Mary said. “Our reservation had a terrible flood back in 1964 and lost many lives. A lot of people came from all over the country to help us and we never forgot that. We consider working with FEMA our opportunity to give back."
The Blackfeet Tribal Council, Blackfeet Manpower, and the Blackfeet Emergency Management Committee had a goal to deploy at least 500 members of the Blackfeet Nation where unemployment is high and many people are eager to help with the storm relief efforts.
Edwin Whitegrass Hall is but one of the many Blackfeet Indians doing his part to help in the relief. One of the Blackfeet strike team leaders, Edwin leads three of his fellow tribesman in the task of going to hotels and motels throughout the vast Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, and working with storm victims to assist their progress in finding a new home and a new job.
"We were rushed through training in Orlando," said Edwin. "There was such a great need all at once. We cover the whole Dallas area and that requires us to drive many miles in a day."
Edwin and his colleagues start their days at 7:00 AM in FEMA's Dallas Area Field Office. In a scene reminiscent of the briefing room sequences in the classic TV series Hill Street Blues, the strike team lead hands out assignments and gives instructions for a busy day that will last for the next 12 hours. Like all field offices, the briefing room is full of scores of workers, but the complexion of this room is predominantly Native American, reflecting the great success Mary has had in recruiting her fellow Blackfeet tribesmen.
Edwin meets with three other Blackfeet colleagues in the lobby and they discuss how they will canvass the area before they get on freeways buzzing with traffic in one of the nation's largest and most sprawling metropolitan regions. Strike team assignments are doled out based on the needs of the day, as opposed to what would be more convenient for the workers, which would be to collect the assignments in a geographic cluster. Hence, a group of workers could start in the northeast suburb of Garland, then make the trek to Fort Worth, at the western end of the Metroplex, and then back to Dallas. Some assignments may even have the workers flying far afield to Amarillo or El Paso.
As Edwin heads for a hotel in one of Dallas' beautiful park-like neighborhoods, he explains that strike team work was different than the work he anticipated he would be doing.
"Those of us from the reservation thought we'd be involved in the storm cleanup," Edwin said. "I did such work for FEMA when the Space Shuttle Columbia blew up. But this job is really a public relations job. We work with people to help them to understand the process. FEMA knows that people's needs must be met and it isn't always easy."
Edwin's colleague, Jay Kipp, offers further perspective.
"We didn't anticipate being the first person many of these storm victims would open up to," Jay said earnestly. "It would be an overstatement to say I fully understand what these people have gone through, but I think my being Blackfeet helps them to see that I can relate. They know that we are here to help."
Many hotels offer rooms for the strike teams to meet with the evacuees who are lodging there, but sometimes the rooms are all taken. Such was the case at one facility in Arlington, a suburb perfectly between the metro region's two major cities.
Arlington is typically known for offering fun diversions, such as the Texas Rangers major league baseball team and the original Six Flags theme park. Today, however, the strike team workers will remember Arlington as one of the many places where they offered a sympathetic ear and a kind heart to storm victims in grief.
Edwin and Jay are joined by Dean Oscar, Jr. and Joseph Fisher, also from the Blackfeet Nation. The desk clerk calls the evacuees in their respective rooms and asks them to meet in the lobby, which soon becomes crowded with storm victims whose experiences are painfully fresh.
A man wearing a New Orleans Saints baseball cap is happy to report that he now has a job, and that feeling of usefulness for which we all yearn, shines in his account. Unfortunately not all evacuees have such glowing reports.
In another corner of the wood-paneled room, a woman vents her frustrations at not having a job; at being in a new city; and at the slow pace of transition. Three months is a long time to be waiting for one's life to return to any semblance of normal.
Dean and Joseph listen to the woman's understandable lament that mixed rage with tears. At one point she returned to her room to fetch a photo album full of pictures of her home in New Orleans, before and after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The two men look at each of the pictures with interest as they continue to address her current needs. By the time they are done her tears are dry and her heart just a bit more at ease.
"It feels good to help," Joseph said later. "It makes you feel you've done your job when people smile. You know by then that they will be okay because they know about the options we are helping them to use."
"Native people are very giving and into family," Dean added. "Working for FEMA lets us use that part of our lives and put it to use for the good of people going through a really rough time."
The day ends for these men where it began, back at the field office, which sits appropriately off the freeway that leads strike teams to their destinations. A 12-hour day is behind them and another awaits them tomorrow.
"The days blend together," Edwin says as he prepares to go back to his own hotel room. "But HELP couldn't be a better program for the hurricane victims. We believe in what we're doing because we've been through hard times ourselves. People just need to know everything will be all right, and it feels great to be the person who tells them it will be."
An old Indian proverb cautions us to never judge another until we've walked a mile in his or her shoes. As Edwin and his Blackfeet colleagues work the vast Dallas region, they cover many, many miles in the experiences of others, replacing judgment with a compassion and an understanding few others could offer.