HOLLYWOOD — Hurricane Irma stormed into Florida as a category 4 on Sept. 10 leaving nearly 16 million people, including Seminoles, without power and hundreds in a crisis situation. For some Seminole reservations, the storm’s impact was mild, but for others the damage proved hazardous as Tribal members endured days without power.
The preparations for the storm began about a week earlier when the Seminole Police Department and Emergency Management Department began monitoring the storm more closely and reviewing emergency activation plans. Police Chief and Executive Director of Public Safety William Latchford spent the week meeting with the Tribal Council and executive directors, who are responsible for the emergency plans of their respective departments, to prepare departments and the reservations.
At the time, hurricane models predicted the storm would directly hit some of the reservations, so Latchford explained they were preparing for the worst scenario. Prior to the storm, Emergency Management secured 144 pallets of water, two ice trucks and three gas tankers from Seminole Petroleum. These resources are part of the Tribe’s all-hazard plan and the Board works to purchase these items as soon as possible.
As the storm drew closer, Latchford met with the directors and the Council via conference calls, which also included the National Weather Service.
“They [National Weather Service] were able to give us detailed descriptions of what they thought the weather predictions were going to be at that moment,” Latchford said. “Nothing is exact and the spaghetti models were changing between left, right and center [of the state].”
By Sept. 8, the Tribal government was closed and only essential personnel, which included emergency services and some regular employees, were called to work to assist public safety.
“We brought everybody in knowing the storm was going to impact multiple reservations, just not knowing how that impact would be,” Latchford said.
Bureau of Indian Affairs recruits Tribal assistance
Joining in the support were law enforcement officers from other Native American tribes, including the Comanche, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Quapaw tribes.
Comanche Police Chief Vernon Griffin said that the Bureau of Indian Affairs contacted his department around Sept. 1 asking if there were officers available to travel to the Seminole reservation. Comanche sent four officers, whom have a special certification from BIA to help with emergency situations, to assist in the relief efforts. Originally, the four officers were ordered to help with efforts in Houston, but BIA decided their assistance was needed more in South Florida.
“If officers are needed somewhere and I have qualified officers that I can send, then we’re going to do that,” Griffin said. “We’ve had tornadoes and flooding here and we understand what it’s like. I don’t hesitate one bit if I have the resources to help with situations like this.”
The four Comanche officers were part of a 25-man quick response team with other personnel from Oklahoma, including BIA Office of Justice Services officers and Tribal members. The team was responsible for helping officers from the Seminole Police Department respond to incidents during and after the hurricane as part of a Direct Federal Assistance (DFA) mission.
Latchford explained that many employees were sleeping in cars, on floors and in chairs for short amounts of time and many of them hadn’t spoken to or seen their families. When the additional help arrived, many were able to return home for an hour, call their loved ones and get much-needed sleep after working extended hours.
“They put the Tribe first,” Latchford said of the employees. “We have very dedicated employees and that was very rewarding to watch. … It’s the employees and the community that really make this a success.”
BIA also sent radio technicians to the reservations. In total, 75 of 125 approved personnel from DFA assisted the Tribe in Big Cypress, Brighton, Immokalee and Hollywood.
“Who better to send, if you have the resources available, then another tribe to assist a tribe?” Griffin said. “We might not have exactly the same culture but we understand Indian culture. Ninety-five percent of my commissioned officers are Tribal officers. Most of them are Comanche Nation members.”
Bringing in BIA officers proved helpful during the storm. In addition to monitoring casinos and patrolling areas, they also took part in a few emergency calls. Police arrested one man and seized his car for a drug-related incident and two individuals — one who overdosed and the other who had a heart attack — were revived by Seminole Tribe Fire Rescue personnel. All individuals are reportedly doing well.
FEMA and White House send help
President Donald Trump’s Sept. 11 declaration that Florida was in a state of emergency brought thousands of volunteers and workers to assist in disaster relief efforts under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to FEMA, federal agencies deployed approximately 22,000 employees to assist Floridians, Tribal members and local states. According to FEMA, this is the first time the government has ever approved a Presidential Emergency Declaration for a Tribal nation.
“To be able to have the relationship with the federal government to ensure the support and safety of all Seminole Tribe of Florida Reservations and our members is a testament to the relationship of two sovereign governments,” said Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola in a U.S. Department of the Interior press release. “I would like to thank President Donald Trump for his commitment to deploy all necessary resources to assist the Seminole Tribe of Florida during this difficult time.”
Elisa Roper, a regional Tribal liaison for FEMA, explained that when an emergency situation is activated for one of the six federally-recognized tribes in her region, she and FEMA’s Incident Management Assistance Team travel to the tribe to help. FEMA deployed Roper to the Tribe on Sept. 12 to help address power outages, diesel and propane shortages and other issues that arose from the hurricane.
“FEMA is committed to our partnership and collaboration with the Seminole Tribe,” she said. “We were definitely going to provide support in response to recovery from Hurricane Irma and maintaining the nation-to-nation relationship with the Seminole Tribe and its people.”
As part of the response, the Tribe and FEMA dispersed Points of Distribution (PODs) throughout Big Cypress, Brighton, Immokalee, Hollywood, Naples and Trail. At these locations, Tribal members and employees were able to pick up water, ice and non-perishable foods. As of Sept. 25, all POD locations were closed, except for ones in Trail, at which Public Safety continued delivering ice and water because those with power services from Lee County Electric Cooperative were still without power. All other locations had regained power.
FEMA also helped Tribal officials with the paperwork process. Latchford said that the Tribe gets reimbursed for losses, such as manpower hours, preparations and damages to government buildings. So far, FEMA has allocated $4 billion to the Tribe for hurricane response.
To move forward, the Tribe has submitted a request to FEMA for a Direct Disaster Declaration. Unlike the Presidential Declaration — which provides immediate short-term assistance — this declaration requests for the White House to provide an aid expansion for public and individual assistance within the Tribe. Essentially, Roper said, the Council is asking for some additional assistance in getting Tribal affairs back to normal.
During this process, the Tribe assesses critical infrastructure and homes of members who live on and off the reservations. This data is provided to the FEMA headquarters, where they determine if there is enough information to determine the cost of damages, before being sent to the White House for final approval. This request is currently under review.