Eastern Band works with FEMA in historic partnership under the Stafford Act
By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recently became the first federally recognized American Indian tribe to garner a Presidential disaster declaration, signed March 1, under the recently amended Stafford Act. FEMA officials are in Cherokee this week accessing damages relating to flooding that occurred Jan. 14-17 as a result of heavy rainfall.
Principal Chief Michell Hicks and Major Phillip May, FEMA Region 4 Administrator, signed documents detailing the agreement between the Tribe and FEMA in a historic ceremony in Chief Hicks’ office on Friday, March 8.
“It’s an historic event for Region 4, it’s an historic event for the nation,” said May. “We are privileged to be here to sign this agreement which outlines the relationship between the two entities.”
Chief Hicks said to May, “You’re right, this is an historic event. I was in D.C. this week and a lot of people are talking about the Stafford Act which was signed into law. Fortunately, we are the first one to receive monies, but unfortunately, we do have a lot of damage as a result of these floods.”
“We do appreciate you guys coming to the table. We’ve always had a great relationship with our state and we’ve had a great relationship with you guys as well, but it does seem that this does make it a little easier to go directly to the potential funding opportunity. We’re glad you’re here, and we just hope we can get some of this damage cleaned up as quickly as possible.”
Chief Hicks said that the Tribe is the benchmark in the relationship with FEMA and that many eyes throughout Indian Country are on the Eastern Band right now.
“Since this is the first Presidential declaration, it’s just really overwhelming,” said Mollie Grant, EBCI Emergency Management manager who was instrumental in the effort to get the declaration. “A lot of other tribes are waiting to see how we handle the declaration and the policies that we have to set.”
Grant said the entire process will be a great experience for the Tribe and Emergency Management. “I think it will help us more with our sovereignty issues because now we can go directly to FEMA to request for a declaration, and plus we’ll already have our policies and procedures set up.”
She said the Tribe will still partner with the state. “They’ve been a big help in getting the declaration. They helped us with writing up the documents and paperwork, and they are also helping us now with public assistance damage assessments and administrative assistance.”
Grant related that the funds are only for damages incurred on tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and are not for damages in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“It’s an honor for me to be the first federal coordinating officer to deal directly with a tribal nation,” said Michael E. Bolch, CEM, FEMA federal coordinating officer. “It’s going to be a learning experience. The federal team will have to learn the intricacies of working with a tribal government. We’re used to working with state and county governments and other sub-grantees. It’s also going to be a learning experience for the tribal government and the staff here to learn the federal ways and how we do things.”
Bolch went on to say, “A lot of other people around the country are also interested in what we’re doing here because there are a lot of other tribes who could come up with disaster requests so a lot of people will want to know how we did things here – what lessons we learned and what good practices we had.”
When asked if he thought this experience might provide a blueprint of how FEMA deals with other tribes in the future, he related, “That’s correct. Right now, other than the law that was just passed, we have very little guidance. In this case, we’ll be establishing a lot of precedents.”
As of now, preliminary damage estimates are around $3.5 million and Bolch related FEMA will pick up 75 percent (around $2.7 million) of the total.
Jimmy Ramsey, North Carolina Emergency Management, commented, “We did the preliminary damage assessment because the State of North Carolina recognizes the Tribe as the 101st county. In Emergency Management, we treat the Tribe just like any other county in the State of North Carolina so we’re in here helping with this damage assessment making sure that every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed to make sure that the Tribe is getting everything they’re supposed to get from FEMA just like we would with any other county when we have disaster affect.”
Ramsey serves as area coordinator which includes the Tribe. “I’m here to serve as a liaison between the state, tribal and FEMA to make sure everyone is working on the same page of music.”
The Navajo Nation became the second tribe to garner a Presidential disaster declaration when President Obama signed their order on March 5. They suffered from a severe freeze from Dec. 15, 2012 to Jan. 21, 2013.