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.

Tribal Nations Set to Gain Authority to Make Disaster Declarations Directly to U.S. President

Stafford Act passes Senate on 62 – 36 vote – Headed to President Obama’s Desk for Signature

 National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
Embassy of Tribal Nations
1516 P Street NW, Washington, DC 20005
Phone: (202) 466-7767

 Jan 29, 2013

Washington, DC – Tribal nations will soon have the same ability provided to states to make disaster relief declarations and requests for assistance directly to the President of the United States. In a 62-36 vote on Monday night, the U.S. Senate passed H.R. 152, the Hurricane Sandy Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill, which includes amendments to allow tribal governments to make direct requests for emergency assistance to the President under the Stafford Act. Under current law, tribes must seek assistance through a state governor’s office, often causing critical delays in emergency response on tribal lands.  The legislation, which also includes $50 billion in Hurricane Sandy relief funding, passed 241-180 in the House of Representatives two weeks ago and now goes to President Obama’s desk to be signed into law.

 “Some tribal nations in the U.S., many in remote areas, are larger than some states and every tribal nation has unique disaster response and recovery requests. The final passage of this bill marks a historic moment in tribal emergency preparedness and response. Our nations, devastated too often by natural disasters with disproportionate impacts, will be more capable to respond immediately to major disasters, and the bipartisan support for this legislation should not go unnoticed,” said Jefferson Keel, President of NCAI. Keel is also the Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. 

 NCAI further acknowledges that the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) made the tribal amendments to the Stafford Act its sole legislative priority under Administrator Craig Fugate’s direction. The need for this critical policy change has been called for repeatedly in FEMA tribal consultations and meetings with tribal leaders during NCAI conventions. 

 “State and tribal governments will now be able to access disaster assistance as needed to aid the people, local communities, and regions in recovering quickly from catastrophic situations. NCAI looks forward to the signature of this landmark legislation by President Obama. NCAI is prepared to work with FEMA to ensure its implementation contains fair and inclusive eligibility criteria and will benefit the maximum number of tribal communities,” concluded Robert Holden, NCAI’s Deputy Director and longtime coordinator of emergency management policy and response efforts at NCAI.