HELENA – The Blackfeet tribe’s housing agency is suing the U.S. government for more than $1.2 million over damage to homes that were flooded in 2011, with the tribe claiming the government was responsible for a clogged drainage system.
An attorney for the Bureau of Indian Affairs responded Friday by saying the town of Browning is responsible for the drainage system, the homes were built in a low-lying area, and the tribe was negligent by piling up snow instead of removing it.
The tribe owns the houses south of U.S. Highway 2 in Browning and rents them to tribal members. Blackfeet Housing Authority attorney Terryl Matt claims in the lawsuit that the BIA is responsible for the storm drains in the area because they are located along portions of BIA routes.
The reservation saw significant snowfall during the winter of 2011, and the snow was plowed into huge banks, according to the lawsuit. That June, the town saw substantial rain. The unusual amount of water created by the melting snow and rainfall caused the water to back up into the homes and flood basements, the lawsuit said.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many homes were flooded.
An engineer hired by the tribal housing agency determined the storm drains were clogged and the water had nowhere to go, according to the lawsuit.
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The lawsuit says the BIA is responsible for the streets and storm drains, but those drains “have not been maintained for years, if at all.”
Matt said in the lawsuit that the BIA breached its fiduciary duty to the tribe, resulting in damages of at least $1.28 million.
Assistant U.S. Attorney George Darragh Jr. said in response to the lawsuit that the June 2011 flooding was a natural disaster, and that the damages were caused by the tribe’s own negligence because somebody stockpiled the snow near the houses.
The houses themselves were built in a low-lying area with a high water table and no proper storm drain system, Darragh wrote in his response. The town of Browning, not the BIA, is liable for the design or reconstruction of those systems, he wrote.
The tribe also failed to regularly maintain and inspect the houses, allowing damage and accumulation of mold to occur over time, Darragh’s response said.