By MIKE ANDERSON
Rapid City Journal
PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) - Gazing out his living room window at the rolling, wind-swept hills of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Marvin Goings gestured to his dining room table in his front yard.
A few minutes earlier, Goings had sat at that table and accepted the keys to his new home, a permanent manufactured housing unit installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It is the first of more than 200 to be erected on the reservation between now and spring 2016.
Goings’ household was one of 1,900 on the reservation to apply for aid through FEMA’s permanent housing program, which was instituted after a massive flood in the spring. About 1,500 of the applications were denied.
The installation of the homes marks an historic first for FEMA: placing permanent homes in a disaster area in the continental United States.
The reservation’s remoteness prompted the unprecedented action, said Gary Stanley, a federal coordinating officer with FEMA.
“Where are you going to send people?” he told the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/1Ne7gR9). “There’s nowhere to rent because this is such an austere environment. How are you going to temporarily house people out here?”
Standing in his freshly minted kitchen, Goings described what he saw last spring.
“All that out there was covered in a foot of water,” he said, looking at the spot where FEMA workers stood shaking each other’s hands. “The river over the hill had spilled its banks.”
Between May 8 and May 29, storms brought howling winds, several inches of snow, and punishing rains to the reservation, all of which added up to a flood that caused enough damage for President Barack Obama on Aug. 7 to declare it a national disaster. It is the only time a Native American tribe has independently requested and received a formal disaster declaration from a U.S. president, FEMA External Affairs Specialist Brian Hvinden said.
Goings’ new kitchen included shiny Whirlpool appliances, a Proctor Silex 12-cup coffee maker, microwave, and hardy aluminum cabinetry stocked with pots and pans, all of which came with the new 14-by-60-foot trailer. Three of Going’s granddaughters bounced on cushioned chairs and a couch that FEMA also supplied.
“I love it,” said Goings’ daughter Chloe. “I’m so happy.”
Stanley said the home and everything in it belongs to Goings now. FEMA will not be collecting any payments.
The overwhelming majority of the families that applied to FEMA for new housing were rejected because their homes were damaged during a separate windstorm in June, Hvinden said, and were therefore ineligible to receive aid associated with the May storms. The registration window to receive housing through FEMA closed in early October, as did an appeals process 60 days later.
The household of John and Myra Nelson made the cut. They and six other people are still living in a Pine Ridge trailer severely damaged by wind and water. Extensive repairs restored some electricity and a few walls, but the home is still barely livable.
“The roof sprang leaks and there was so much rain that the trailer started to sink into the ground,” John Nelson said.
The trailer is still sinking, Myra Nelson said. This Thanksgiving their dinner included Jell-O, and when she retrieved the mold from the fridge, she saw that the stuff had solidified at an angle.
“We all had a good laugh at that,” she said.
The Nelsons said they have been in regular contact with FEMA and are awaiting a call letting them know their new house is ready to be installed. They and all the other qualified residents will receive a 72-hour notice, Hvinden said, after which FEMA will demolish the old damaged houses and replace them with new trailers like the one Goings received.
It has taken several long months of sending investigators to the reservation to assess the damage and create a plan of action, but FEMA plans to install a new home every day until May, weather permitting.
Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele said he hopes the new homes will help comfort a reservation that has endured a rash of suicides since last December, including two in November.
“I really thank the FEMA people for being away from their families and getting this completed,” Yellow Bird Steele said in remarks prior to Goings’ receiving his house keys. “This is going to give to the children and the adults in their thinking that times are changing, that yes, someone cares, yes there is hope for the future.”
This is the first time FEMA has installed permanent housing in the continental United States, Hvinden said. For most disasters, FEMA installs temporary housing units that are eventually removed.
Besides the 200-plus households receiving new homes, another 100 will get repairs to their current homes. FEMA’s Other Needs Assistance Program has also contributed $211,289 to eligible families for personal property - cars, clothes, etc. - that was lost or irreparably damaged from the flood.