RAPID CITY, S.C. -- FEMA has hired 18 local residents from the Pine Ridge Reservation to assist with disaster recovery efforts from tornadoes, severe storms and flooding that struck the area beginning June 4. Local residents has been hired to work with FEMA staff to help take applications, interpret for housing inspectors, and transport applicants between their homes and the Disaster Recovery Center.
When Jennie Briseno was growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, she never imagined she would be paid to speak her native language. "When my mother was a child, she was punished for speaking Lakota in school," Briseno said. Now a mother herself, Briseno uses what she has known all her life to help her neighbors recover from one of the worst natural disasters to strike her community.
Through Briseno's interpretive skills, she helps her neighbors, affected by the tornadoes and severe storms, register for disaster assistance at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Recovery Center in Pine Ridge. To date 563 people have visited the Center, located in the Pine Ridge High School gym.
"Our policy is to hire local residents in every response and recovery operation. They are an essential part of the community's restoration," said Del Brewer, deputy federal coordinating officer for FEMA.
Ivis Long Visitor, a local interpreter for FEMA inspectors, appreciates the opportunity to speak Lakota. "People here on the reservation are glad they can speak their own language," said Long Visitor. "It gives them a chance to speak more sincerely. Translations soften the impact of talking to a stranger."
A carpenter by trade, Long Visitor accompanies FEMA inspectors who visit damaged properties. Long Visitor helps explain the programs and the process to his neighbors.
With the support of local residents, the word has gotten out to the Lakota community about federal, state and voluntary assistance. A total of 958 people registered for assistance through FEMA's toll-free registration line as of July 6.
FEMA has issued checks totaling nearly $213,000 for immediate home repair assistance, and $21,000 has been approved for rental assistance.
Another interpreter and guide at Pine Ridge is John Black Bear who has visited with more than 400 people since he began with FEMA in mid-June. "The first time we went out, people were still in shock from the disaster. Some of them had just bought new trailers and the tornado destroyed them. Their pride is what was really hurt," Black Bear said.
According to Black Bear, many people were unfamiliar with the FEMA programs and were not aware of what was available to them in the form of disaster assistance. "Some of them don't know what is going on when they see the guys with FEMA badges on, but after I start talking to them, telling them what's going on, then they feel better."
Kindergarten teacher Mary Brown works in the Disaster Recovery Center and explains the programs to her neighbors who were affected by the disaster. "I started out as a receptionist, listening, talking to people -- because people need to talk about this. I would find out their needs and then direct them to the appropriate person to speak with at the Recovery Center," Brown said.
"I think people just need to talk and let others know what happened to them. And I think part of that talking is also a healing process for them," Brown said. "When they return to the Center, you see the difference in their attitude. You can see the hope come back into their faces, you see that in their body language."
The Oglala Sioux Tribe wants people to know that cash donations are still being accepted to assist people affected by the tornadoes. Although residents are receiving emergency assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the state of South Dakota and other federal agencies, those affected by the storms still have unmet needs...