Native Community Disaster Preparedness Leaps Forward with Publication of New Resilience Handbook

By Vincent B Davis, CEM

As in any community, a solid network of partnerships is needed to address the specific needs of its community members. Native American and Alaska Native populations span the nation, but face similar preparedness challenges. To address resilience gaps, a public-private sector collaborative approach was used to create a tool as a foundational document for community outreach by tribal stakeholders, as well as tribal emergency managers and others to train new staff.

There are 567 federally recognized tribes, living on more than 300 reservations, representing 22% of the 6.6 million Native American and Alaska Native population. Many tribal families live in remote rural communities, where 68% of homes on tribal lands still lack access to broadband internet service, as of January 2016. This rate is lower than that of some developing countries. In contrast, more than half of African-Americans and Hispanics and about three-fourths of Caucasians have high-speed access at home in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. A 2012 report from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Office of Native Affairs and Policy noted, “Reservations of many Tribal Nations are located in rural areas with challenging terrain.” The FCC cited the badlands of the northern plains states and the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest as particularly challenging situations.

Statistically Challenging Circumstances

Because the vast majority of disaster preparedness material resides on the internet, this information is nearly impossible to obtain for many Indian Country families. For those born on reservations, the economic outlook can be especially challenging because Native American households earn only a little more than half as much as the average American ($37,227 compared to $53,657 for the nation as a whole). Approximately 28.3% of Native American and Alaska Natives are living below poverty and, without basic preparedness plans, these families are even more vulnerable to injuries and fatalities in a disaster. With the growing number of floods, wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural catastrophes, and the ever-present threats from man-made contamination of tribal lands, family preparedness has become an even greater challenge for survival in Native communities.

To further exacerbate the preparedness dilemma, most tribal nations are in remote, rural communities with few response resources readily available. This increases the chances for delayed response in a major event, leaving families to care for themselves for extended periods without assistance. As many Native communities struggle to maintain a meager existence, the resilience gap continues to widen.

Tribal Handbook – Closing the Resilience Gap

To address the Native resilience gap, Preparedness Matters, a disaster preparedness consulting group specializing in underserved community preparedness, collaborated with key stakeholders in the tribal emergency management community and Native communications experts to develop a strategy and discuss ways to reach tribal families who have limited electronic media access. The challenge was not just to develop a tool, but to make it comprehensive and accessible to a wide audience of stakeholders. Working with Native Public Media, the nonprofit organization that coordinates training and support for the 59 radio and TV stations broadcasting in Indian Country, and the National Tribal Emergency Management Council (NTEMC), which represents 277 tribal emergency management groups in the Pacific Northwest, Preparedness Matters launched a project to develop the “Native Family Disaster Preparedness Handbook.”

The publication was designed to consolidate the vast amount of preparedness information into a single resource guide that would be easy to digest, culturally relevant, and affordable for tribal residents. Additional collaborators with expertise in mitigation, disaster trauma, and tribal recovery were included to provide subject-matter expertise. The group set forth several goals for the design of the Handbook. The main objectives were to “demystify” the tribal disaster process by explaining the sometimes-complex procedures and nuances of tribal recovery, and to provide simple steps families could take to protect children, homes, livestock, and pets. The added challenge was how to get the Handbook to communities where daily survival is their main priority, and preparing for disasters poses a difficult task few are likely to undertake without help. To accomplish distribution of the handbook, the team developed an outreach strategy to reach key stakeholders in all sectors of the Native community, as well as non-Native partners and supporters.

Sorting through a massive amount of disaster preparedness data presented its own challenges for the handbook project team. Initially, a book outline was created to keep the team on track, with a course of action that adhered to “less is more” when developing the chapter information. Throughout the process the team had to stay focused on the main goal, which was to keep the information culturally relevant, while providing a flexible tool that could be updated and customized by the user. To accomplish this, the spiral bound booklet has a convenient rear pocket that can be used to add information, and a tear-out family plan template to make it easy to copy or secure personal family plan data.

Developing a Culture of Preparedness

Major concerns for Indian Country families in disaster include the reunification of families, and the safety of displaced children. The Tribal Handbook team identified 17 categories of functional needs in Indian Country, and ways tribal stakeholders can address them, including but not limited to:

  • No 911 services
  • Limited or no internet access
  • No street addresses
  • No paved roads
  • Limited or no telephone access or service

Because of these vulnerabilities, active participation in preparedness activities must become a way of life for Native communities, not an afterthought. This means creating a culture of empowerment and awareness, essential to bring about meaningful behavior and attitude changes, especially among those in greatest peril. Preparing to protect or minimize damage to vital agricultural resources is equally important to the economic recovery of post-disaster tribal communities. The loss of livelihood from damaged crops, wildlife, fishing, mineral mining, livestock, and other resources can have lasting effects on any community, especially one as dependent on these sources of income to support its people.

In addition, protection of a Tribe’s sacred sites cannot be ignored, but rather must be integrated into all phases of the emergency planning process. If a disaster destroys a sacred site such as a burial ground or historical site, the impact on the Tribe can be devastating physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Spiritual connection to the land is a hallowed tradition – where Native ancestors lived and are buried, where the future generations will grow and prosper in the rich heritage and history of Native culture.

A Note from the Author

To be clear, the Native Family Disaster Preparedness Handbook was created by and for Native people. My role as facilitator for the projects was motivated by my resolve to empower positive disaster outcomes for the underserved. As we concluded the publication, one of the Native contributors called me a hero. I humbly responded with a quote from the late tennis star Arthur Ashe who said: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass others at all cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

While many disaster preparedness needs and concerns still exist in Native and other underserved communities, I applaud the efforts of those and individuals and practitioners who work tirelessly every day to bring greater awareness and participation for citizen empowerment before disasters strike. People below poverty, elderly, children, disabled, and those without transportation, limited English speakers, and others most at-risk, need the knowledge and tools required to change outcomes in disasters.

The Native Family Disaster Preparedness Handbook is a significant step in a much larger journey to achieve true whole community resilience. Despite the many obstacles and challenges, as emergency managers, we must all redouble our efforts to address apathy and indifference. Failure to act decisively and deliberately cannot simply be measured in financial losses, or damaged property. The true cost of unpreparedness must be framed in the context of lives saved, injuries prevented, and the survival and well-being of future generations. Only after we have done all we can to prepare ourselves, can we truly then leave the outcome to the Creator.

To learn more about the Handbook project visit our website at www.thenativefamilydisasterhandbook.com

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