After a series of recent missed opportunities for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist tribes, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) is asking the agency to address pressing tribal concerns when it updates its consultation policy, which is expected to happen in August.
In a letter sent April 11 to Robert Fenton Jr., the current senior official at FEMA until a new administrator is appointed by President Donald Trump, Daines requested that the agency hold at least one tribal listening session in Montana on the matter, noting that tribal leaders in the state have expressed strong desires to provide their input on FEMA’s consultation policy.
FEMA has announced plans to soon hold listening sessions with tribes, but specific meeting places have not been released. In January, it published a guidance pilot program aimed at helping tribes better work with the agency. The agency previously published its tribal consultation policy in 2014.
“Montana tribes are all too familiar with natural disasters and states of emergency,” Daines wrote in explaining the need for improved consultation by FEMA with tribes.
“For example, the Fort Peck Tribes experienced an extreme weather event last June whereby severe storms and straight-line winds destroyed or damaged over 100 homes and businesses on the reservation, leaving families homeless and without the resources to repair their roofs. The majority of the families impacted lacked insurance or could not afford to purchase tarps to cover their roofs as rain continued to pour.”
Montana’s federal legislators all requested that FEMA allow the tribe to declare an emergency, thus releasing federal funds, but Craig Fugate, the former FEMA administrator, “could not accommodate the tribes’ request for an emergency declaration because their crisis did not meet the agency’s required magnitude,” according to Daines.
“More recently, the Chippewa Cree Tribe faced a crisis when their water system froze and broke, leaving approximately 115 residential homes, the Rocky Boy Head Start facilities, Stone Child College, and the Chippewa Cree Tribal Justice Center without water,” Daines wrote.
Chippewa Cree leaders “did not bother filing for a FEMA emergency declaration, however, because the cost to remedy the situation did not rise to the agency’s threshold,” the senator lamented.
Tribes problems with FEMA were covered extensively during a February Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing, with tribal leaders testifying that working with the agency has been difficult—even after passage of the 2013 Stafford Act, which allowed tribes to ask for emergency funding directly from the President of the United States.
Tribal witnesses said they need support from more federal agencies beyond FEMA, and they requested faster response times from the agency, as well as clarification on why some disasters are not considered emergencies when they happen in Indian country.
Alex Amparo, representing FEMA at the SCIA hearing, testified that tribes were often unable to value their losses, which sometimes slowed the agency’s ability to respond to their needs.
Daines concluded his letter by saying he believes meeting with tribal leaders and citizens in person will help the agency gain “constructive perspectives on how to facilitate a stronger government-to-government relationship with Indian communities in unexpected times of need.”