Santa Clara Pueblo, N.M., has seen its share of presidential disaster declarations in recent years.
In 2000 it took 1,600 firefighters from 65 local fire departments to put out the Cerro Grande fire. In 2011 the Las Conchas fire burned up the majority of the local watershed. Besides the immediate damage, the fires led to devastating flooding. In both those events, the pueblo, which is a sovereign Native American territory, tapped into Stafford Act funding as a partner on New Mexico’s application for assistance.
In 2013 things played out a little differently. In response to two separate summertime floods totaling some $10 million in damage, tribal leaders applied directly to the government. Santa Clara Pueblo thus became one of the first tribal entities to access Stafford support on its own, rather than having to partner with a state.
While Congress made direct tribal requests possible with its post-Hurricane Sandy adjustments to the Stafford Act, there’s been no clear procedure for making such declarations, and so far, only a small handful of the 567 federally recognized tribes have done so. Recently FEMA released a long-awaited set of guidelines, the Tribal Declarations Pilot Guidance, laying out for the first time a detailed set of instructions for tribal governments looking to go direct to the source in their quest for disaster relief.
“This provides them with new options. It recognizes tribal sovereignty, and it gives them greater control,” said Alex Amparo, FEMA assistant administrator of recovery.
The new guidance is weighty, running more than 50 pages. It details the types of assistance available and the necessary assessments and documentation. It offers extensive insight into the considerations a tribe will need to make before requesting a disaster declaration, including the financial commitment, staffing needs, compliance requirements and other issues.
“What you are seeing now is the result of our efforts over the last couple of years to talk through formal consultation,” Amparo said. “We have been talking to tribes and getting their input, sharing with them drafts of the guidance and receiving more than 2,000 comments from 140 listening sessions. This is the product of all that dialog.”
In addition to allowing tribes to directly apply for aid, the guidance implements some other significant changes in the way Native American governments are empowered to respond to disasters.
Most notably, there’s a change in threshold. States must incur $1 million in damages to be eligible for Stafford assistance. Tribal governments can apply for aid having experienced just $250,000 in damages.
“Part of the reason we went down to $250,000 is that the tribes vary in capacity,” Amparo said. “If you have a tribal nation with a population of fewer than 1,000 people, $250,000 is a major disaster for them.”
The new rules also give tribal governments a greater degree of flexibility in how they interact with national disaster relief programs. “One of the things we saw prior to this change is just the sheer logistical challenge of these things,” said Milo Booth, FEMA’s national tribal affairs adviser.
“Take the Navajo Nation. Under the old Stafford Act we’d be looking at a tribe in three states and three FEMA regions, so they would have to go to three different regional administrations to make their case for a federal declaration, while not being able to combine those damages,” he said. “You could possibly be going to three different governors to ask for declarations on a single disaster.”
Despite the advantages, there may be a financial downside to the new autonomy. The Stafford Act describes a 75/25 split in disaster relief, with the federal government shouldering the heavier load. In many states, that remaining 25 percent has been split in some way between the state and the tribal government, in disasters to which a tribe is impacted.
In New Mexico for instance it’s a 50/50 split, so that in state-led declarations, Santa Clara Pueblo has covered 12.5 percent of the expense. When making a direct declaration, the pueblo must carry the full 25 percent itself.
Despite the potential drawback — and even in the absence of the newly released guidelines — a small number of tribal entities have made their own declarations in recent years.
The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation was the first tribe to apply directly for federal disaster assistance. A 2013 declaration addressed some $5.4 million in damages from winter storms. “It’s a really big accomplishment for the Native American community,” Mollie Grant, then-emergency management program manager for the Eastern Cherokee Nation, told news media at the time. “I think it’s an honor, because we’re the first to lead the other tribes.”
The Navajo Nation also sought damages in 2013 for a $1 billion deep freeze in which more than 3,000 homes were damaged due to frozen water pipes. “We are thankful that we are taking a step to further strengthen our sovereignty as the Navajo Nation,” said then-Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly in a FEMA release. “This agreement recognizes the government-to-government relationship we have with the federal government.”
In Santa Clara Pueblo, some 2,500 people reside on 57,000 acres on the Rio Grande, surrounded by national forestland. The decision to pursue direct disaster declarations in 2013 came in large measure out of a desire for greater control in the emergency management process.
“We got to tell our own story, as compared to someone else telling our story for us,” said Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Michael Chavarria. “We got direct contact with FEMA, we got direct technical support, rather than working through the state.”
This in turn can impact the ways in which remediation plays out. “When you can tell FEMA face to face this is what happened, you get better control over how you direct resources,” he said.
Direct access also has given the tribes better insight into the inner workings of FEMA and improved access to resources within the agency. “We have to wear multiple hats, and we don’t always have the internal capabilities,” Chavarria said. “We don’t have hydrologists and soil scientists to help us figure out the best way forward, so it’s important that we have these strong partnerships and access to third-party assistance.”
FEMA officials said they are looking to the direct-application process as a means to deepen those ties between the agency and the tribes. The agency has put in place a tribal liaison in each of its 10 regions and added a tribal adviser to the external affairs roster to conduct outreach efforts. In 2016 some 1,000 tribal representatives went through the training either at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute or its Center for Domestic Preparedness.
“When you have tribal leaders go through these exercises, this really does go to build resiliency across the entire nation,” Amparo said. “You have more people with a greater understanding of where and how emergency assistance is provided.”