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19 Dec 2022

Turning over a New Leaf: How FEMA is Addressing Gaps in Tribal Nations’ Disaster Preparedness Planning

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Genevieve Olsen

In the wake of increasingly frequent and powerful natural disasters, many Native American tribes and organizations have been vocal about insufficient FEMA disaster relief funds. Many Native American communities are, in effect, excluded from federal disaster relief funding and are left vulnerable to the damaging effects of floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and more. But the potential for progress is right around the corner. For the first time in history, the 2022-2026 FEMA National Tribal Strategy directly addresses gaps in FEMA’s engagement with Federally Recognized Tribes. The strategy aims to establish equity and cultural competency, improve services by encouraging interagency collaboration, and encourage hands-on meetings with Tribal leaders and experts.  

Disproportionate Disaster Relief Funding:

Native American peoples and tribes have historically received disproportionately less funding from the federal government for disaster relief compared to other groups in the United States. According to the National Congress of American Indians, non-indigenous U.S. citizens receive about $26 per person, per year, from the federal government. In comparison, tribal citizens receive approximately $3 per person, per year for recovery efforts. 

It wasn’t until the Sandy Recovery Act of 2013 that Tribal Nations could independently request federal aid; previously, the state governor had been the only one who could request aid on their behalf. This left Tribal Nations dependent on the governor's assessment of individual and public damages, which in most cases overlooked native peoples and Tribal territory. 

But now with the implementation of the National Tribal Strategy, Tribal governments can directly apply for grants from FEMA. In order to receive funding, Tribal governments are required to have a FEMA-approved mitigation plan in place which will govern local planning for natural hazards. If a Tribal Nation does not have an approved plan, they are not eligible to receive funding for permanent, non-emergency repairs, or long-term mitigation measures.

This new strategy was designed to reduce the long-term risk of natural hazards in Tribal territories by involving active participation from Tribal government leaders and intends to create more accurate and inclusive legislative proposals, rulemaking, policy changes, technical assistance, training, and grants for disaster management Tribal Nations.

Barriers to Creating a FEMA-Accepted Disaster Preparedness Plan 

Mitigation and preparedness plans are an important step in proactively preparing for emergencies, so when a disaster strikes, recovery plans can be immediately initiated. As the world is becoming increasingly affected by climate change induced natural disasters and resource scarcity, some communities are preparing a disaster management plan for the first time. A durable disaster preparedness plan is more important than ever, yet many local governments lack the infrastructure and funds to create a well rounded plan. There are some major barriers that Tribal Nations will need to address in order to make an effective disaster preparedness plan. 

The biggest barrier is first and foremost poverty. Tribal Nations across America have disproportionately higher rates of extreme poverty, and many Tribal Nations lack the funds to hire a team to create the mitigation plans. These plans often require detailed technical assessments performed by experts and engineers and are often 100-150 pages long. For smaller Tribal Nations, the cost of hiring experts for data collection and employees for writing up the plan is prohibitively expensive. As of 2022, only 229 out of 574 Federally recognized tribal governments have FEMA-Approved Hazard Mitigation Plans.

Additionally, many homes on reservations are not protected with homeowners insurance because the property on reservations is held in trust by the federal government and communally ‘owned’ by the tribal nation. This prevents Indigenous peoples from building equity while also forcing them to pay out of pocket for any damage to the house.

The rural and isolated nature of many reservations presents an additional challenge. Although most reservation residents know the location of houses and buildings, formal addresses are inconsistent. This is the case in the Navajo Nation, where since 2019, 50,000 homes and businesses have lacked formal addresses. This systemic barrier slows down the arrival of emergency vehicles to homes when they need help and makes housing data collection for FEMA disaster planning difficult to track. Additional infrastructure challenges complicate the situation; for instance, in the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation, the community severely lacks transportation infrastructure which is crucial for evacuation and resource transportation in the face of a natural disaster. 

Not all Tribal Nations are Federally Recognized and Those Who Aren't Lack Legal Status and Rights. 

More than 200 tribal nations are not currently recognized by the Federal Government as a ‘domestically dependent nation’ and are therefore not entitled to certain federal benefits, services, and protections specific to Tribal Nations. For example, the Chinook Nation has a population of around 3,000 and lives near the mouth of the Columbia River in southwest Washington. Since they are not federally recognized as a tribe, they are excluded from various federal government programs that extend to registered Tribes, including disaster relief funding. It is instead up to the discretion of the state to allocate disaster relief. The withholding of such rights forces indigenous communities to be dependent on state aid or apply for individual disaster relief from FEMA which often results in Native individuals without adequate protection against natural disasters.

The disenfranchisement of Native Americans has a long history in the United States, and natural disasters can make it even harder for Natives to participate and vote in local, state, and federal elections. Although the federal government granted Native Americans the right to vote in 1924, systemic barriers still exist for Natives, especially those living rurally or on reservations.  Absentee voting by mail is not available to many Natives who live on reservations due to a lack of a formal address and many who live up to 100 miles away from the nearest polling location. As natural disasters increase in frequency, a disaster is bound to strike at some point during an election. FEMA will also need to develop a plan to maximize Native participation in elections while also ensuring their safety. In major natural disasters, FEMA has provided financial aid to state governments to ensure elections could safely take place. After Hurricane Katrina hit, FEMA provided $733,000 to the state of Louisiana to replace voting equipment in New Orleans before the rescheduled city council and mayoral primary held on April 22, 2006. Hurricanes and other disasters have increased in severity and frequency in recent decades which makes election infrastructure even more important for FEMA to address. Native communities have faced systemic barriers to voting for centuries. Building resilience in the face of natural disasters is essential in Native communities across the country to ensure that the history of Native American disenfranchisement does not continue. 

Turning Over a New Leaf

For the first time in FEMA history, the agency has released a nationwide plan acknowledging the inequality and shortcomings of federal disaster management of federally recognized Tribal Nations. The FEMA National Tribal Strategy was created after several sessions of tribal feedback on the drafts. 135 representatives from 78 tribal nations contributed feedback during tribal consultations this year. 

The 3 Goals of the 2022-2026 FEMA National Tribal Strategy:

The FEMA National Tribal Strategy emphasizes collaboration between all levels of government between Indian Nations and the Federal US government, prioritizing cultural competence, regular meetings and check-ins, open dialogue, and information sharing up and down the chain of command and across all tribal governments.

The Strategy has three main goals:

Equity: FEMA is aiming to create a better flow of dialogue between local indigenous leaders and the federal agency to better understand gaps in the system or areas of strength. 

This includes 

  1. Plans for an annual meeting of the National Tribal Affairs Advisor, Regional Tribal Liaisons, Tribal FEMA Integration Team, and other relevant experts

  2. Hiring more tribal FEMA Integration Team staff to better support Tribal Nations, consistent with staffing models for states and territories

  3. Translating FEMA products into Native American languages

Resiliency: FEMA is planning to develop a report of current tribal needs and capabilities in the field of disaster management so the agency can accurately tailor training and technical assistance

FEMA has made plans to: 

  1. Conduct needs analysis through tribal consultation with Tribal Nations to identify gaps in capabilities. Develop a report of current tribal needs and capabilities in the field of emergency management so that FEMA can better tailor training and technical assistance

  2. Provide Training for the FEMA Workforce on Unique Status of Tribal Nations

  3. Provide technical assistance to Tribal Nations on competitive FEMA grant programs and opportunities

Cultural Competency: FEMA plans to address complaints about culturally insensitive or untrained employees by:

  1. Creating a trained and culturally sensitive workforce at all levels of the agency, including headquarters, regions, and contractors, prior to on-site deployments

  2. Collaborating with Tribal Nations before, during, and after disasters to provide financial assistance

  3. Establishing interagency collaboration between the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) Tribal Desk, Regional Response Coordination Centers (RRCC), the FEMA Office of Response and Recovery, and relevant partners to ensure there are no unmet Tribal Nation needs or challenges

  4. Creating and convening a Tribal Affairs Work Group, within FEMA, composed of a cross-section of representatives from FEMA programs at the headquarters and regional levels

  5. Improving Tribal Awareness of Federal Resource Availability

Looking Forward

This represents a significant step in the right direction and creates a cohesive plan to address some important gaps. Some feedback from Native American groups is that Tribal Nations that are not federally recognized are not accounted for in the Strategy. Additionally, some indigenous groups have emphasized the need for technological advances for WiFi access and grid infrastructure in Native territory. Yet with this new strategy, there will be room for issues like infrastructure improvement to be heard on a federal level. The Strategy sets new standards and expectations for proper dialogue and cooperation between Tribal Nations and FEMA, which will hopefully allow space for these issues to be properly addressed. 

Tribal governments and Reservations would greatly benefit from technological updates as basic as comprehensive addresses for homes and businesses and broadband internet access and as complex as technical support and software solutions for disaster mitigation planning. Tribal Nations could use a team to develop the tools necessary to model, plan, and implement a cohesive Hazard Mitigation Plan to protect their community and get the Federal aid they need in the wake of a disaster. As natural disasters are approaching communities with increasing force and frequency, the need for a durable disaster management plan is more important than ever. 

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