January 15, 2013

Rahall Legislation to Reinforce Indian Tribal Sovereignty During Disasters Approved Again by U.S. House

Washington, D.C. – Legislation authored by U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to solidify Indian Country’s tribal sovereignty during major disasters has been approved as part of one of the first acts of the new Congress.  Rahall’s language was included as part of H.R. 219 which the House passed yesterday evening and which would allow tribes to directly petition the federal government for disaster assistance.

“For more than a decade Indian tribes have sought a direct line to the Federal government in order expedite aid during an emergency or major disaster,” said Rahall.  “This vote once again affirms the House’s support for the ability of tribes to access appropriate federal assistance when unforeseen adversity hits. Coupled with the passage of similar legislation by both Houses of Congress last year, I believe that the prospects for finally providing Indian Country with this long overdue right are very good.” 

Under current law, Indian tribes experiencing a disaster or emergency situations must rely upon a State governor to request the President for an emergency declaration.  Often if damage from a disaster is restricted to a reservation and does not have a broader impact on the state, federal disaster aid cannot be triggered.   

The legislation approved by the House yesterday would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to authorize Indian tribes to directly request the President for emergency and disaster declarations.

“Current law is not only contrary to tribal sovereignty but it also requires the President to only consider the State’s, not the tribe’s, ability to pay for the damages,” said Rahall.  “Under the new law, tribes may still request the State to make the declaration on their behalf but it provides another avenue for those tribes who want to exercise their sovereignty or where a State may be unable or unwilling to make a request on a tribe’s behalf.”

Rahall’s language was crafted with input from tribal leaders across the country who raised concerns that the current law undermines the principles of sovereignty and results in slow response times when disasters occur. Soon after Rahall introduced his original bill, FEMA announced its support for amending the Stafford Act and allowing tribal governments to directly apply for disaster assistance.

The House of Representatives originally approved Rahall’s bill last September and the Senate included similar language as part of a bill to provide relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy.  Because House Republicans blocked consideration of the Senate passed Sandy relief bill at the end of the 112th Congress, Rahall’s legislation needed to be reintroduced in the new Congress.