Tester Takes a Hard Look at Disaster Relief in Indian Country

Indian Affairs Committee Assesses Impact of Amendments to the Stafford Act
Source: United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
U.S. SENATE – At a hearing today on the state of disaster response in Indian Country, Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs had one message: more work needs to be done.
Tester authored changes to the Stafford Act in the last Congress that allow federally-recognized Indian tribes to directly request a Presidential disaster or emergency declaration through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Before the change, tribes were required to make requests through their State governors.
“After listening to the needs of Indian Country, I changed the Stafford Act to allow tribes to request a disaster declaration directly from the President,” Tester said.  “While that was an important step for tribes, there is more work that needs to be done”
Hearing witnesses echoed Tester’s sentiment in their testimony.
Ronda Metcalf of the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribal Council, sought more coordinated responses among relief agencies, “The tribe understands that on-the-ground personnel in these disaster response situations face significant challenges and pressures. This is all the more reason why FEMA must better coordinate with Indian tribes to provide accurate information and improved delivery of services.  FEMA must also provide closer supervision over organizations like the Red Cross to ensure that they are properly carrying out services for which they seek FEMA reimbursement.”
Matt Gregory, Executive Director of Risk Management for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, spoke about concerns many tribes have over the damage threshold for federal support.   “The Stafford Act set $1 million in damage as its threshold for applying for a declaration. This may not work well for a tribe like the Choctaw Nation, with small communities spread out over a wide rural area.  We are faced with a number of disasters throughout the year, and without quick and specific direction, our new-found Stafford Act authority lacks some practical effect.”
Jake Heflin, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Tribal Emergency Management Association, said, “When a catastrophe strikes, the Federal response to natural disasters in Indian Country is slow, tedious, and in significant need of a comprehensive overhaul.   Despite providing pre-disaster support, technical assistance, and planning before a disaster strikes, at the time of the incident, FEMA steps away from tribes until monetary thresholds are met by the disaster. Even when FEMA responds to a disaster, FEMA does not support the tribes operationally.”  
One of the many tribes facing the long-term effects of climate change induced disasters is the Santa Clara Pueblo.  Their Governor, J. Michael Chavarria said, “Given the realities of life in the Southwestern United States and the increasing effects of climate change, disaster relief policies must be shifted to focus on long-term response such as addressing Santa Clara’s post-fire, periodic flooding, which will remain a great hazard to our well-being for perhaps a decade.”
Mary David, Executive Vice President of Kawerak, Inc., a tribal consortium in the Bering Strait region of Alaska said, “The impacts of global climate change, severe arctic storms and arctic shipping on marine life is of high concern.  The Stafford Act is a response when a disaster happens, which is important.  But due to changing climate conditions, our communities are in imminent danger and preventative measures are needed.”
Tester concluded that better coordination between FEMA and the tribes must occur. “For this to be an effective partnership, FEMA must understand the unique needs of Indian Country.  Based on what I heard today, some progress has been made, but there is a lot more work to be done and we’re going to get it done.”
The President can issue major disaster declarations after a natural disaster to provide certain types of federal disaster assistance depending upon the specific needs of the stricken areas.  Such declarations give broad authority to federal agencies to provide supplemental assistance to help state, local, territorial and tribal governments, families and individuals, and certain nonprofit organizations, recover from the incident.