Decades of investment made Mille Lacs a role model during crisis
Preparing for a disaster that may never come can seem expensive and time consuming — but when disaster hits, it quickly becomes clear that it was worth the effort and investment.
The Mille Lacs Band has been preparing for an event like the COVID-19 pandemic for decades. At the forefront has been Emergency Management Coordinator Monte Fronk, who has been with the Band since the early 1990s.
He started out as one of the three original officers in the newly formed Tribal Police Department, but a decade later an opportunity arose that fit his skills and interests perfectly.
"In 2000, President Clinton gave an Executive Order for tribes to assume their own emergency management," Monte explained. "FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) put out grants to each federal region, and we were one of five tribes that received the initial funding."
Part of that federal grant was used to create a Tribal Emergency Response Plan and develop the TERC — Tribal Emergency Response Committee — a team approach to emergency management that Monte says reflects the way tribes have always made decisions.
Over the next 20 years, Monte worked on building the TERC's capacity — with direction from elected leaders and help from former Commissioners and other employees.
"TERC members — Commissioners and a backup appointed by commissioner — have changed many times in the TERC's history," said Monte. "Through all of that, the TERC and its members have made the commitment to be ready to respond to any incident that is beyond normal day-to-day operations."
The TERC was activated twice prior to the COVID-19 pandemic: in 2011, when floods hit the District II community, and in 2012, when a blowdown hit District III.
In the meantime, Monte has attended countless trainings and seminars and organized exercises for TERC members to gain experience in responding to emergencies.
"Being an active participant in county, regional, state, and federal trainings, exercises, webinars, and conference calls has helped me to see and hear about how this would affect our area and pass it along to TERC members," said Monte.
On March 9 of this year, the TERC was activated again as it became clear that the COVID-19 epidemic was certain to hit Minnesota and Mille Lacs communities. (The timing was interesting for Monte; he spent his birthday weekend at work.)
Monte credits Commissioner of Administration Baabiitaw Boyd with making a quick decision to activate the TERC. "That helped us respond and plan better to reduce the spread, and we’re seeing the effect of that now with limited cases in our communities."
Monte also says teamwork has been key to the Band's success. "Our response to the pandemic has been done in a unified manner. Every member has an equal voice, and when any critical decision is made, and the Chief Executive is notified, she knows it was a group decision."
Finally, Monte points to the TERC's Public Information Officer (PIO), Vivian LaMoore, as another important contributor. Vivian has been to TERC trainings and learned the key role that information plays. "Mille Lacs is the only tribe I know of with a designated and certified PIO," said Monte. "That was the key to keeping the community informed about what was going on."
Monte and other TERC members have received many calls since the pandemic began from other tribes hoping to learn from the Mille Lacs Band's experience.
Monte and his colleagues are always willing to help. "It's just role-modeling what Chief Executive Benjamin wants us to do," he said. "During tough times, our history is respected and we’re called upon, and that shows the good relationships we have with all the Nations. It has been an honor to be of service to the Band, under three excellent Chief Executives — Art Gahbow, Marge Anderson, and Melanie Benjamin," Monte concluded. "That has been a gift. I've been lucky and humbled to work under amazing leadership and to watch where Mille Lacs Band has come from and where it is now, and how many other tribal nations look to the Mille Lacs Band for best practices."
Several TERC members also shared their impressions of the committee and what it has been like to serve.
Valerie Harrington, Chief Communications Officer with the Legislative Branch, said, "My experience and role with TERC has been a definite learning experience. Listening and witnessing the concern for our community and hearing decisions be made with minimal time has given me a secure feeling. Knowing we have amazing leadership that is constantly thinking about what is best for us all has helped me to feel safe. I hope Band members know that during these times, Band members are constantly on the mind of TERC. What has stood out to me the most has been the commitment and hard work of all the employees, departments, and branches. All the willingness to help and work together has been a key part of TERC."
Commissioner of Finance Mel Towle said, "Despite the challenges the pandemic has brought upon us, a tremendous amount of work is getting done, and important decisions being made every day. Things like food delivery, payments to Band members, health/pandemic preparedness, grants/CARES Act financial and data submissions, and numerous other actions, decisions, and strategy do not just happen. It takes a tremendous amount of coordination, communication, dedication, and teamwork. That is what the TERC and supporting staff are doing for the good of the Band and our region during this pandemic."
Assistant Commissioner of Administration Peter Nayquonabe added, "It has been a humbling and trying time since the second week in March! Working with the TERC committee during this time has shown me the commitment that TERC members have to keeping the Band community as safe as possible. As a cohesive group, we have made common-sense decisions to protect the community and mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The Health and Human Services staff has provided great health information to the TERC, and they work long hours to keep this virus at bay as much as possible, which speaks volumes to the leadership of Nicole Anderson. Lisa Blahosky-Olivarez has led by example for her Public Health Department. I would also like to thank the elected leaders for fully supporting the TERC committee. My personal favorite interactions during this time have been with the Elders every two weeks at the Elder food distributions. Their smiles and words of encouragement keep me going and let me know that we are doing the right things. Lastly, we are the Non-Removable Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. We have been though trying times before, and once again we will come through this time a strong community."
"Niwenda-apiitenimaag ingiw niwiidanokiimaaganag imaa TERC. Bebakaan netawichiged bebezhig. Indishpenimaag gakina ani-maamoowinikeniwaad da-wii-naadamawangwaa giwiiji-bimaadiziiminaanig."
"I really value all of my fellow TERC members. Each one of them has an expertise. I think highly of their ability to come together as we help our community."
– Commissioner of Administration Baabiitaw Boyd
"COVID-19 is an invisible enemy – you cannot see it, but there is no question that it is here, and it is having a major impact on our day to day lives. Ironically, in a way, there exists a similarity to the TERC in that there is a tremendous amount of impact as a result of something that you probably cannot see. You don’t always see what the TERC is doing, as meetings are held over the phone and via Zoom, members are either in their offices, or working remotely. I have been especially impressed with the level of dedication by my fellow TERC members. No matter what time of day, or what day of the week – If I have an issue that I need help with right now, I can count on fellow team members to get me what I need and when I need it. Everyone has really stepped up, there is no 'business as usual,' and noticeable that there are no complaints. We do what we have to do."
– Commissioner of Finance Mel Towle
"Over the years, the Band leadership has worked to implement an emergency response committee for various types of scenarios. With this planning and preparedness, a foundation has been formed to help government operations continue for the greater good of our communities. I’m proud to work with the members of the TERC committee as we navigate this unknown territory of the COVID pandemic. Departments and staff have worked well together during this time, and we could not have done our jobs without the sound leadership of the Elected Officials."
– Commissioner of Natural Resources Katie Draper
"The TERC was formed quickly and effectively and was a great tool to help formulate a unified government response to the coronavirus pandemic. The TERC has been extremely helpful to ensure services and information are distributed to the communities. It also has been a good way to stay connected to our colleagues during this time, and I have enjoyed serving on the TERC."
– Solicitor General Caleb Dogeagle
"The TERC has been a great team to work with. I personally enjoy the differing perspectives and believe that gives any great team balance."
– HHS Commissioner Nicole Anderson
"Working with the TERC has been extremely informative. I joined the TERC in week four, but what I quickly learned is that this team of individuals is dedicated to the Band, serving our tribal communities, including the urban area, with a wide-range of leadership skills and demonstrated results. What stood out the most for me is that even we, as the committee, have some angst and anxiety due to the pandemic and social unrest, but a few individuals within the team always have a cool, calm demeanor with a focused composure. It helps alleviate the uneasy feeling, and it is reassuring to know that this is the team to help get us through this crisis."
– Tribal Court Administrator Gilda Burr