Indian tribes now eligible for direct disaster aid


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Tribal governments can now directly request a disaster declaration from the president.

In the past, tribes needed to make a disaster request through a state governor, the same process counties follow.

The change recognizes the sovereignty of tribal governments, say officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

President Obama signed the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 earlier this year. In passing the bill, Congress amended the Stafford Act to provide federally recognized tribal governments an option. They can choose whether to make a request directly to the president, or be included in a state disaster request as in the past.

FEMA is consulting with the 566 American Indian tribes across the country and will develop new temporary rules later this year according to Beth Zimmerman, deputy associate administrator for the federal Office of Response & Recovery.

“All of our ten regions have been holding conference calls and trying to gather and solicit the information about things that make tribes unique (compared) to our state partners that we currently have,” Zimmerman said, “things that we need to look at as we are evaluating this process so that we do take into account the uniqueness of tribes.”

Some of the unique issues related to tribes include the local match required for disaster aid. FEMA generally uses a 75 percent federal, 25 percent local formula to pay for disasters. However, the agency may consider a different formula based on the ability of tribal governments to pay.

FEMA also considers the cost of disaster damage on a per capita basis.

A benefit for tribes would be that per capita disaster cost would be calculated based on reservation population, not the entire states population. For a large disaster, tribes might join the state request for a federal disaster declaration, for more localized disasters, it might benefit the tribe to independently request federal aid.

There also needs to be at least $1,000,000 in damage for states to request a federal declaration. During a conference call with tribal leaders recently, FEMA Director Craig Fugate said tribes will need different regulations.

“The rules are designed for states. So there is a minimum threshold of one million dollars per disaster declaration,” he said. “And that’s part of why we want to look at providing specific rules for tribal governments, realizing that the, the floor cost for disaster, based on states, may not be the same as it needs to be for tribal governments.”

Fugate said there are many issues to work out in the rule making process.

Tribes will also need to have a hazard mitigation plan in place. Many already have those plans included in a statewide plan.

Temporary rules will be in place later this year. According to FEMA, it will take three to five years to write permanent disaster regulations for tribes.

So far, two tribes, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation and the Navajo Nation have applied for and received federal disaster declarations under the new law.

Zimmerman said tribes will need to evaluate the options.

“There’s a lot of interest and just the thankfulness to the federal government right now for acknowledging them,” she said. “I know a lot of them are looking at it because in some states the states do pay their cost share. So they’re weighing out their options as far as what they can afford.”

FEMA is taking public comments until April 22.

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