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Burns Paiute Tribe to receive federal disaster aid after for floods, mudslides

The Burns Paiute Tribe is getting help digging out from heavy spring rains that caused flash flooding, mudslides and major damage to its Jonesboro ranch, a 6,380-acre property in eastern Oregon.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, announced this week that the tribe would receive federal disaster assistance to help with recovery costs following June 11 and 12 rains that brought a cascade of 6 feet of mud and earth down on the tribe’s property. 

“The housing that was there, equipment storage, there was an old historic barn, corrals, those were all completely inundated with water and mud and large boulders and trunks of trees,” said Calla Hagle, natural resources director for the tribe. 

Typically six or seven employees of the tribe’s natural resources department live and work on the Jonesboro ranch, a 6,380 acre property in Malheur County – not on the Tribe’s reservation in Harney County. 

Tribal leaders welcomed the assistance: They recently learned that the flood insurance policy on the property would not pay a dime in recovery costs. This is because the greatest damage to buildings was caused by sliding debris, which the insurer doesn’t cover, according to Hagle. 

“It is kind of one of those things where it’s like, why have flood insurance if it doesn’t cover anything?” she said. 

FEMA will reimburse the tribe for a portion of the clean-up costs, typically covering about 75%, according to Erin Ward, FEMA tribal liaison for the region. An assessment of the damage has yet to be completed so the tribe doesn’t know the full cost of repairs but they are likely to run in the hundreds of thousands. The tribe and FEMA are beginning to negotiate an agreement about the reimbursements, Ward said.

The tribe has undertaken some cleanup and salvage work since June, Hagle said, but there is still substantial mud and large boulders blocking access to some parts of the property. The tribe’s reservation near Burns was not affected by floods.

According to a report from meteorologists and hydrologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, the flash flooding began in stream basins that flow into Jonesboro. Many of those basins had been burned by the August 2020 Indian Creek Fire, leaving less vegetation and healthy soil to help absorb and slow the flow of water runoff. 

A significant amount of renovation on the Jonesboro property had been in progress or completed prior to the mudslides, Hagle said. The historic barn roof was replaced, the corrals rebuilt and modernization projects were underway in the two staff houses on the property.

“That’s all gone, unfortunately,” she said. “Both staff houses will be condemned.”

It’s unclear whether the federal disaster assistance funds will only cover cleanup or if any money can be used for rebuilding. Hagle will meet with FEMA officials in the weeks ahead.

“We have kind of a vision that we’re working from for the future of the property,” she said. “Does that vision align with the kind of funding that’s available within those programs? That is the big question.”

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