UPDATED: 11:35 EST - WASHINGTON – Heeding calls from tribal leaders, the Obama administration announced December 7 that it supports a legislative amendment that would allow tribes to apply for federal disaster aid directly from the President of the United States, the same way states currently can. Under current law, only state governors can make official disaster declaration requests.
Tribal leaders, citing past slow and bureaucratic disaster relief to their reservations, have pushed for this flexibility for at least a decade. They say that under current law tribes experience an unnecessary loss of valuable response time when they seek federal assistance after a catastrophic natural disaster or manmade incident.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials said that the decision to support increased tribal sovereignty came in response to concerns raised by Indian leaders based on specific disasters and slower-than-desired responses to them in recent years.
“Consistent with our strong government-to-government relationship, FEMA and the administration support amending the Stafford Act to allow federally recognized tribal governments to make a request directly to the president for a federal emergency or disaster declaration,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said in a statement. “Tribal members are an essential part of the emergency management team, and amending the law would enhance FEMA’s working relationship with tribal governments and improve emergency and disaster responsiveness throughout Indian country. We look forward to actively working with our tribal partners and members of Congress to support and facilitate the passage of such a change in the law.”
The Stafford Act would have to be amended by Congress to accomplish the goal, Fugate said in a call with the press on December 7. The law, signed into law in 1988, says that only state governors can currently apply for FEMA aid. Stafford was an amendment to the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, and it created the statutory authority for most federal disaster response activities pertaining to FEMA.
Fugate said that in studying current law, it has been determined by the Obama administration that a congressional amendment would be required to grant tribes increased sovereignty in this area. He indicated that there is no other way for President Barack Obama to grant increased tribal authority here, such as through policy regulation updates, or via an executive order.
Agency officials said that Fugate first announced the administration’s support for this change at a Tribal Leadership Conference hosted by the White House earlier this month.
FEMA’s action comes under the direction of Obama and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Obama administration officials said that amending the law would “acknowledge the sovereignty of federally recognized tribes and the trust relationship of the United States, and enhance FEMA’s working relationship with tribal governments.”
“Such a change would be another step in fulfilling the promise of a presidential memo issued by President Obama to improve the administration’s support for tribal governments,” according to a FEMA press release. “Such a legislative change to the Stafford Act would allow a Tribal government to choose whether to directly request a separate declaration or to receive assistance, as they do presently, under a declaration for a State.”
FEMA has already implemented regulations and policies that, once a disaster or emergency has been declared under the Stafford Act, allow federally recognized tribes to choose to become a direct grantee under FEMA’s Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation Grant programs. As part of this effort, the agency has designated tribal liaisons in each of its 10 regional offices, and has hired a lawyer who is experienced in Indian law. “This has allowed us to more closely coordinate with tribes, and make sure they have the support they need while planning, preparing for, responding to and recovering from emergencies and disasters,” according to a FEMA press release.
U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.V., ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, noted that he strongly supports action on this matter in Congress. "When disaster strikes, Indian country deserves a direct line to the President to help unleash critical Federal resource,” Rahall said in a statement. “Tribes should not be subject to the whim of a state governor to act on their behalf in a time of great peril because this flies in the face of tribal sovereignty and it requires the President to consider the state’s – not the tribe’s – ability to pay for damage.”
Rahall introduced H.R. 1953 in May, which 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. Under Rahall’s bill, references to "state" and "governor" in current law would be updated to mean "Indian tribal government" and the chief executive of an affected Indian tribal government. Nothing in the act would prohibit a tribal government from receiving assistance through a presidential declaration at the request of a state if the president does not make a declaration under the act for the same incident.
In response to a question from Indian Country Today Media Network, Fugate said that FEMA generally does not support specific bills until officials have been able to ensure that the legislation does “what we want it to do.” He also said FEMA provides technical assistance to Congress on bills when needed.
Cecilia Munoz, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, said that advancing this principle in the law will include working with Rahall and “hopefully many other members of Congress in order to get this done.”
When asked how long it will take to get this recommendation implemented by Congress, Fugate said, “We’ve got work to do,” noting that an amendment to Stafford would have to get through both the U.S. House and Senate. “We don’t have an immediate timeframe on this,” Fugate added, “but it is something that we would like to work with Congress—and if there is an ability...we would like to see this done soonest….”
Thus far, Rahall’s bill has already been stalled this year in the Republican House. The congressman had requested that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee consider H.R. 1953 at its October 13 committee markup on another bill to amend the Stafford Act, but Republican leaders did not bring it up.
“I have asked for this bill to be considered,” Rahall said at the markup meeting. “But I am denied.”
The bill has since been referred to the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. Republicans have not scheduled any hearings on the legislation.
Despite the need here to rely on a slow-moving Congress, tribal leaders expressed initial optimism at the Obama administration’s announcement.
“Just like states, when disaster strikes, tribal nations must act swiftly to respond to protect and secure lives, infrastructure, and public health,” said Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, in a statement. “We call on Congress to fix the Stafford Act and incorporate the sovereign status of tribal nations in this important law….”
“The support of the Administration and FEMA for a legislative change recognizes not only the sovereignty of tribal nations, but also acknowledges the critical role tribes play in the network of emergency response and disaster relief at the local and national level,” added Keel.
NCAI officials noted that tribal nations represent a unique and important sector of the United States homeland security and emergency management system. “Nineteen tribal nations are each larger than the state of Rhode Island, and 12 have a land base larger than the state of Delaware,” according to an NCAI press release. “Last year alone, tribes experienced major catastrophic events tied to blizzards, floods, fires, and manmade events resulting in multi-million dollar losses in tribal government infrastructure, and personal property.”