WASHINGTON – Until last month, Tribal Nations under the Stafford Act have been labeled as political subdivisions of the state in which they reside. This changed in January when Congress adopted the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill (H.R. 152), where the intent originally was to provide $50 Billion dollars in relief to areas that suffered damage from the storm. More important for Indian Country, the Bill included enabling legislation to amend the Stafford Act and now allows Tribal Nations to have the opportunity to directly request a disaster declaration from the White House and eventually receive assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the event of disaster.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told the USET Board of Directors on Wednesday, Feb. 6 the quest to have the Stafford Act amended to give Tribes the ability make requests for disaster declarations and federal assistance directly rather than getting state approval first was going to be an impossible task.
“We (FEMA) came around to the idea that this was the right thing to do. It was mainly a benefit to recognize the trust relationship with the Tribes,” Fugate told USET. He added that there was no benefit for FEMA to support such a change. In fact it added more work to the FEMA staff. Prior to the passage of the Sandy Relief Bill last month, there were only 54 states or territories that could make disaster declaration requests. Now, that many governmental bodies plus over 500 Tribal Nations can make that request. Fugate says leadership from President Obama was paramount to help make the change because the White House had meaningful consultations with Tribal Nations.
Meaningful consultation with Tribal Nations will be more important now than before the bill was passed according to Fugate. H.R. 152 gives Tribes the authority and option to make disaster declaration requests to the President, but there are no processes, policies, and procedures to follow through with grant administration once funding is approved to assist with a disaster. Administrator Fugate says this is not a show stopping challenge as it may take three to four years to fully develop the procedures and policies.
“This is where the consultation process is going to get going. The amendments to the Stafford Act do not identify how we (FEMA and Tribes) are going to work together as a nation-to-nation relationship,” Fugate added.
Each Tribal Nation has a unique culture, relationship with the state where its property exists, level of ability to administer federal grant funds, and experience with emergency management. As all Tribes are not the same, some may not want to exercise its option to make a direct declaration, but continue to go through its state representatives.
“We are going to work this as a pilot program. We did not want to wait until we had all the answers (policy and procedure) on how to do this. This is really where the consultation process will be critical,” Fugate told the USET Board of Directors.
One point Administrator Fugate made to USET was that Tribes are not forced to make disaster declaration requests directly to the President. This is only an option and is a choice the Tribes must make. “It is about self determination and the Tribe’s sovereignty,” Fugate concluded. Administrator Fugate’s final note to Tribal leaders is that this whole process is a “Big Deal” to Indian Country.
USET President Brian Patterson gave praise to FEMA and the White House for its work to bring new opportunity and renewed strength in Tribal sovereignty.
“It is not often that we advance a piece of legislation that is born to support self determination. It is with that thought we are grateful for your leadership and from the President (Obama) to make effective change in the Stafford Act that will ultimately strengthen Tribal sovereignty,” Patterson told Fugate.
Tribes across the country are preparing to make disaster declaration requests to the White House. Reports from North Carolina show the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians may be one of the first Tribes to make such a request after 18 inches of rain in three days caused mudslides, property damage, and destroyed approximately 200 feet of road way to U.S. 441 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.