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FEMA Supporting Specific Legislation on Making Tribes Equal to States

WASHINGTON – It’s been over six months since the Obama White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said they were in favor of tribes being able to directly request emergency support from the President of the United States, as states now do, and the agency is finally supporting specific legislation that would amend the Stafford Act to make that change a reality.

The news was announced this week by the agency and detailed in a press conference call on June 14.

“The question is why is FEMA supporting this,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said on the call. “The answer is because President Obama issued an executive order to all federal agencies imploring us to increase our consultations with tribal governments, to listen to their issues and concerns, and work on the things we could to do support their needs….”

Fugate said tribal leaders have overwhelmingly expressed dissatisfaction to him that FEMA “did not recognize the sovereignty of the tribes.” He said the problem is directly related to the Stafford Act of 1988, which was written in such a way that it refers to tribal governments as political subdivisions of states, and it only allows governors and leaders of states and territories to request emergency aid.

Fugate said the agency now recognizes tribal sovereignty and self-determination, and added that will continue to work with tribal governments to make their lands safe.

But the agency can do only so much under the law. The key change that will be required legally and morally, Fugate said, is an amendment to the Stafford Act, which he wants passed this session of Congress.

“We do not see this as something that should be delayed,” Fugate said. “We are urging Congress to act.” He added that officials at FEMA are now working with bill sponsors in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

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“As far as whether or not they are going to pass, that is our goal, and that’s what we are working toward,” Fugate said, adding that he feels it is important for Indian country citizens to make their representatives aware of the issue. “We are pushing on our end, but I think it’s important to hear from the communities themselves to let Congress know why this is important….” He said he doesn’t envision any “insurmountable challenges,” although legislation offered in Congress to date on this issue has already been slow moving.

Jodi Gillette, senior Native policy advisor at the White House, noted on the call that the White House first announced its support in December 2011.

When Indian Country Today Media Network asked Fugate why it took over a year and one month to support an amendment offered by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., introduced in May 2011 and that accomplishes the goals FEMA now supports, Fugate said part of the delay involved making sure there weren’t any “unintended consequences.”

Rahall’s bill, H.R. 1953, would amend the Stafford Act by authorizing the chief executive of an affected Indian tribal government to submit a request directly to the president when disaster strikes. It was stalled in committee last year, but there is new hope with the increased support from the administration that it might progress.

Ann Adler, a policy advisor for Rahall, said that H.R. 1953 was approved by voice vote as an amendment to H.R. 2903, which was reported out of committee on March 8and is awaiting further action by the House.

“I have long advocated the notion that Indian tribes, as sovereign nations, should have a direct line to the federal government to expedite aid in the wake of an emergency or major disaster,” Rahall told ICTMN after learning of the administration’s new wave of support. “The ability to work directly with FEMA has been a priority for Indian country for over a decade, and I have been pleased to press forward with legislative changes that would ensure that the tribes receive vital assistance without unnecessary delay. I am gratified to see that the administrator of FEMA has endorsed the idea.”

A similar Senate version of an amendment to the Stafford Act is S.2283, introduced in March by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, which the administration supports.