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Belcourt's warning system faces scrutiny

RURAL BELCOURT, N.D. -- Martin A. Peltier did everything right when he saw a tornado hurtling toward the house he'd just moved into, those who know him relate.

RURAL BELCOURT, N.D. -- Martin A. Peltier did everything right when he saw a tornado hurtling toward the house he'd just moved into, those who know him relate.

The 44-year-old father, who was home alone, rushed into the basement to take shelter.

Little did he know that the basement wall, the very one he huddled near, would collapse on top of him, crushing his pelvis.

The wind had smacked his house off the foundation, pulling the cinder-block wall with it. Two of the walls were gone, as was the roof.

Today, Peltier is expected to go into surgery in Bismarck, the only seriously injured resident of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Reservation.

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"He's in a lot of pain, but he's stable," said his cousin, Brenda Page.

As in nearby Rolla, it could've been much, much worse because the tornado bypassed the main part of the city. The tornado seriously damaged 19 homes, authorities said.

But in Belcourt, there was another problem: The tornado sirens never went off, for reasons still in dispute.

The first warning many residents had was the sight of the tornado itself, ruining what had been a clear and nearly windless Monday afternoon.

"It came out of nowhere," said Shaiyan Davis, 14, who was at the nearby Anishinabe summer camp.

Shaiyan said she was going from one class to another when she saw the wind lift a pickup and drop it. Adults got her and other students into the shelter of nearby buildings, she said.

Her father, Logan Davis, the editor of the Turtle Mountain Times, said he was flabbergasted that he didn't learn his daughter was in danger until after the tornado had passed.

Tribal Chairman David "Doc" Brien acknowledged tribal government's response was not what it could have been. The tribe should consider this a lesson, he said.

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Stewart LaFountain, a tribal council member, disagreed. A similar situation occurred two years ago, he said, when a major windstorm struck the southern part of the reservation and killed a tribal member in his mobile home.

He's been asking for an emergency response plan, he said, but still has not seen one.

From all accounts, the problem appeared to be one of command and control.

Anita Blue, the emergency manager, said officials have not conducted any drills to test their response, and it showed. "The radio traffic," she said, "everyone was on top of everyone," meaning emergency responders were cutting one another off talking on the same frequencies.

But their response was timely, and ultimately, got the job done.

"The response was quick," LaFountain said. "It was unorganized, but it was quick."

Authorities credited residents with helping one another, as well, though many had gotten in the way of responders early in the aftermath.

When the storm passed, another problem emerged.

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"A lot of the homes that were hit were poverty stricken, so they had no insurance," Blue said. She said 18 of the 19 damaged homes were uninsured, though Brien said it was 15.

In one case, three families shared a mobile home, Blue said. "That's all they had to live in."

That home belonged to Paulette Aldrich, who shared it with daughters, Janah and Bridgette, and four grandchildren, Khai, 4; Halia, 3; Collin, 4; and Jordan, 5 months.

There, things could've been much worse, too, if Janah hadn't gone outside and seen the tornado tearing down the road.

"Whoever said it sounds like a train was a liar," Janah said, referring to the common "it sounded like a freight train" description. It sounded like a huge rush of wind, she said.

The extended family of seven had just enough time to rush into the bathroom, where Paulette said she protected three of the children with her body. Twice, the tornado lifted the mobile home and dropped it with a tremendous thud, she said.

After the storm, it had moved 7 feet away from where it had been. An addition to the home was blasted wide open but left untouched was a plastic lawn statue of the holy family. Tree branches and leaves covered the children's playground equipment.

Retelling her ordeal almost 24 hours later still made Paulette shake and sob.

Gov. John Hoeven, who had toured Rolla, N.D., earlier, hugged the grandmother and suggested ways she could help herself until aid arrived.

It still is unclear what that aid might entail. State and local officials said the first step is to assess damage.

This is important, Hoeven said, because the threshold for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is damage exceeding $1 million in a single county.

Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent Patrick Hemmy said the amount of damage matters to his organization as well.

In the meantime, the Red Cross has stepped in to offer food, clothing and temporary shelter.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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