The Blackfeet Reservation remains under a state of emergency as yet another blizzard bears down on the Rocky Mountain Front tonight into tomorrow. The series of storms have forced Heart Butte Public Schools to close 10 times since the start of the year.
Lately, Lee Folley ends each day with the same question.
"Can I open the school and transport and support the kids, the staff and the community members that come up here, safely?"
Folley is the superintendent of Heart Butte Schools, which serves a little more than 200 K-12 students in the southern corner of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. At times this winter, wind has piled snow so high that plows haven’t been able to get to Heart Butte. Folley says snow covers his office window, but even with the deep snow and impassable roads, he says the schools need to stay open.
"One, is obviously the education of the kids. They’re falling behind with all these school closures."
Second, Folley says families in Heart Butte rely on schools for a safe, warm place to send their kids.
"Equally important is this is a low socio-economic area, and oftentimes in those areas the kids depend on the school for food. We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to our kids. A lot of times, especially in a crisis like this, the parents aren’t supplied or prepared to have their kids at home that much."
Folley says the community has really pulled together to dig each other out of the drifts, stock up on firewood, and make sure heating vents are clear and pipes don’t burst. People with burlier vehicles drive elders into Browning 30 miles away to pick up medical prescriptions and make dialysis appointments.
But even with the neighborly support, Folley says Heart Butte has spent a few days entirely cut off from the outside world.
"It just keeps giving us new twists every time we turn around," he says.
Conditions aren’t much better in Browning. Public schools there were able to open with a delayed start Monday but the district didn’t send buses out. Roads in town and around the reservation have opened and closed intermittently due to ice, snow drifts and whiteout conditions.
The American Red Cross has opened an emergency shelter at the Methodist Church in Browning for people stranded in the storms.
Jim Brusda with the National Weather Service in Great Falls says the reservation is in the middle of the kind of winter you don’t see very often.
"They basically had 50 inches more snow in the East Glacier region than normal."
Brusda says his office has recorded winds hitting speeds equivalent to a category 1 hurricane, strong enough to leave some places completely bare of snow. Brusda says other areas are so deep that road crews are using front end loaders, excavators and backhoes to clear snow.
"They haven't had a winter this bad, this extreme since the winter of '71," he says.
Roads were so bad over the past few weeks that Heart Butte’s high school basketball teams couldn’t return home from tournaments for three weeks in a row. The girls made it home Monday, but the boys are still on the road on their way to the state championships in Butte after winning the Northern C Divisional Championship this past weekend.
The National Weather Service has issued another winter storm watch for the reservation and Rocky Mountain Front through Tuesday evening. Blizzard conditions, including 50 mile-per-hour winds and blowing and new snow, are possible. Travelers are advised to take it slow and keep up with new forecasts.