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It is May in Oklahoma. It is early afternoon. A mother listens to the news anxiously. She is at work more than 30 miles from home. She knows that the children are getting out of school soon and alone until she gets home at 5:30pm. She is anxious because in Oklahoma, spring often brings severe weather.
Many Oklahomans are acquainted with the anxiety that comes with dark skies and muggy mornings. Admittedly, the people in many Midwest and Southern communities can tell you who the television weathermen and weatherwomen are on certain stations. They may even have their favorite – someone whose expertise they trust. It is usually before the storms, that people wonder to themselves – what if the storm hits my home?
In rural communities this question is particularly agonizing. This is because help is so far away. Increasingly, rural communities are faced with a shortage of medical providers, emergency response personnel, and even legal services providers. In Oklahoma, when a family is in need, neighbors help neighbors.
This is even more true when the community is a tribal community. In Oklahoma there are 39 federally recognized tribes. All are sovereign nations dedicated to serving their enrolled citizens and members. If they can afford, they try to provide services ranging from medical/health services to housing services, to elder support and children education programs. The tribes take pride in fostering true community and belonging with each other. Oklahoma weather tests these communities. That is why Oklahoma Indian Legal Services (OILS) stands tall with each tribe in Oklahoma as we face the Oklahoma weather together.
OILS helps tribal members in all phases of a disaster. We help tribal citizens prepare for disaster by teaching about the importance of preparing important legal documents during “blue sky” days. We actively participate in groups like Oklahoma Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and the Inter-Tribal Emergency Management Coalition to coordinate, collaborate, and cooperate before, during, and after a disaster has stricken. We partner with legal services organizations like the Oklahoma Bar Association, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, and Legal Services Corporation.
We also work with and have received grant funding from incredible philanthropic organizations like the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and GlobalGiving. We work with federal and state agencies and organizations like Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (ODEMHS). Most importantly we work with the tribes.
Between Jan. 1, 2022 and Sept. 19, 2023, Oklahomans experienced 10 emergency and disaster events. These events ranged from wildfires to severe weather events. Five of them being federally declared and many of these disasters affected tribal communities. After these disasters, OILS helped communicate information to tribal communities by utilizing social media and traditional media sources. OILS entered disaster-declared communities to help provide direct legal services assistance to low-income enrolled tribe members. OILS helped those affected by the storm address FEMA issues, connect survivors with tribal and non-profit disaster resources, and retrieve legal documents or address home ownership issues. OILS attorneys and staff are passionate and experts at working in tribal communities.
People provide financial support to organizations like OILS after a disaster has occurred. Many of us have done so. But it’s crucial to support organizations like OILS by helping tribal communities before a disaster occurs. Commit to help that anxious mother and her family. Support OILS and help tribal families prepare for weather-related and non-weather-related emergencies.