January 29, 2013

Rahall Legislation to Reinforce Indian Tribal Sovereignty During Major Disasters to Become Law

Washington, D.C. – Legislation authored by U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that solidifies Indian Country’s tribal sovereignty during disasters and emergency situations is expected to be signed into law by the President in the coming days.  Rahall’s language was included as part of H.R. 152 which was approved by the Senate last night after being passed in the House earlier this month.

“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.  “Now, with this action by both Houses of Congress, they will finally be able to access appropriate federal assistance when unforeseen adversity hits. This is a great day for Indian Country and for tribal sovereignty.”

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 that has now been approved by both the House and Senate 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.