President Obama Signs Law Putting Tribes on Equal Footing as States for Federal Emergency Aid

President Barack Obama has signed into law legislation that will put tribes on equal footing as states in requesting federal disaster aid.

President Barack Obama has signed into law a piece of legislation passed by both the House and Senate that will put tribes on equal footing as states in requesting federal disaster aid.

The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 passed the House in early January and the Senate later in the month.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., first drafted and introduced the legislation last Congress. He said it was necessary because tribes are sovereign nations and should have the ability to oversee emergencies when they arise.

“For more than a decade Indian tribes have sought a direct line to the Federal government in order to expedite aid during an emergency or major disaster,” Rahall said in a statement. “Now, with this action by both Houses of Congress, they will finally be able to access appropriate federal assistance when unforeseen adversity hits. This is a great day for Indian country and for tribal sovereignty.

“Current law is not only contrary to tribal sovereignty but it also requires the President to only consider the state’s, not the tribe’s, ability to pay for the damages,” Rahall added. “Under the new law, tribes may still request the state to make the declaration on their behalf but it provides another avenue for those tribes who want to exercise their sovereignty or where a state may be unable or unwilling to make a request on a tribe’s behalf.”

Rahall’s bill, along with a companion piece of legislation offered by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., alter the Stafford Act so that tribes experiencing a disaster or emergency situations do not have to rely on a state governor to request the president for an emergency declaration. Tribal leaders have said that in the past, if damage from a disaster is restricted to a reservation and did not have a wider impact in the state, federal disaster aid has not been triggered.

“Indian tribes are sovereign nations that need timely and efficient support when disasters occur,” Tester said after passage of his bill. “Streamlining the response process cuts costs and gets assistance to the ground where it’s needed without delay so folks can get back on their feet and begin rebuilding their lives and communities.”

Tribal leaders have long raised concerns about their lack of input in emergency situations and the slow federal response time when disasters occur on reservations.

“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,” said Jefferson Keel, president of National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). “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.”

“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,” added Robert Holden, NCAI’s Deputy Director and longtime coordinator of emergency management policy and response efforts at NCAI.

Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA in the Obama administration, took a lead in expressing the administration’s support for the change to the Stafford Act. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network last September, he called on Congress to take action, and he said passage was his “legislative priority.”

Fugate expressed pleasure on January 30 that the Congress had affirmed his desire. "FEMA has strong, long-standing relationships with tribal governments, and they are essential members of the emergency management team,” he said in a statement. “We commend the efforts of members of Congress, tribal leadership and their organizations, the Department of Homeland Security, and the President who have made this change a reality.”

FEMA added in a statement released by the White House that “[f]ully implementing this historic provision will require consultation with tribes and other stakeholders, particularly as FEMA develops the administrative and programmatic requirements and procedures necessary to execute the law. FEMA will provide interim guidance in the coming weeks explaining how and when tribal governments may seek declarations, while more comprehensive consultations and administrative procedures are undertaken.”