Law Change Brings Disaster Declaration for Tribes

By SUZANNE GAMBOA | March 8, 2013

President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation Tuesday, making it the second American Indian tribe to receive such a declaration after a law change in January.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina was the first federally recognized tribe to get a disaster declaration after an alteration to the Stafford Act, sought for several years by Native Americans.

The change gives tribes the option of requesting disaster declarations directly from the president, rather than applying to a state that then makes the request.

The revision was included in the $50.5 billion emergency assistance package for Superstorm Sandy victims. Some tribes complained that their recovery needs sometimes are not given priority and that going through state governments fails to recognize their status as sovereign nations.

Obama signed the Sandy aid bill into law Jan. 29. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians got its declaration March 1.

During a Dec. 15 through Jan. 21 freeze in Arizona, temperatures dipped to the mid-20s at night. Water lines froze, and more than 10,000 people in different communities of the Navajo Nation were without water for weeks, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said in a news release.

Repairing the water lines and system cost about $5.2 million, the release states. “I thank President Obama for making federal aid available to the Navajo Nation,” Shelly said.

The White House said the declaration makes federal funding available to the two tribes and certain nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis.

For the Navajo Nation, the money is available for emergency work and repair or replacement of damaged facilities and for “hazard mitigation.”

The Eastern Cherokee Band will have funding to fix or replace facilities damaged by severe storms there earlier this year. Several days of heavy rain and storms in mid-January led to flooding and caused a landslide that took out a section of US 441, a major road between the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, Tenn., to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ reservation in Cherokee, N.C.

The tribe’s chief, Michell Hicks, said the storms caused an estimated $10 million in damage, with about $3 million of that to reservation property and land.

“That’s significant for us,” Hicks said.

Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, discussed the disaster declarations for tribes Tuesday at a legislative summit sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians in Washington.

He said rules still must be written on the process for providing assistance to tribes. He has asked the president to submit declarations under the provisions of a pilot program “so we would not wait until rules are written to being processing requests from tribes.”

The rules will need to be able to assist tribes when disaster strikes, ensure additional response aid is available and recognize tribes’ diversity. Writing the rules is likely to take four to five years, Fugate said.

“But we’re not waiting four or five years to implement the legislation,” he said.

(Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., contributed to this report.)

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